HMP Gartree is a Category B high security men's prison with over 700 residents. It is located in Leicestershire. The library at HMP Gartree has supported 189 residents to complete Reading Ahead 2019-20. We spoke to Natalie Garfield, Library Service Assistant, to find out how the library staff support readers and how the library provision has been impacted by lockdown.
Pre-lockdown, how did the prison library function at HMP Gartree?
The Library is popular with both staff and residents at HMP Gartree and it has a lot to offer.
We have a huge choice of books, both fiction and non-fiction and we aim to provide new books and requests once a month. The Library is decorated with displays and a variety of book choices; from Quick Reads to large print, graphic novels to audio books and an amazing selection of foreign language books. We have 10 computer stations that can be booked by residents to be used under supervision and a photocopier which is frequently used. We also have table spaces for anyone who needs the space to work on. The Library has a meeting room used by both staff and residents and a VC room used by education. We have 3 Library orderlies on hand to help anyone who visits, as well as 3 staff members.
The men can book in to attend the Library, either for books or to do some work. They also have the option of visiting on their designated wing nights for books.
As a Library, we try our best to promote a positive environment. We hold a Library induction every Wednesday morning for any new residents and we hold staff inductions on a training day. We have a monthly reading group for about 10 residents, with a new book set each time and discussed during the meeting. An entry level English education class visits us weekly to take out any books that will help them with their learning.
Before Covid-19, we were hosting various events; the author, Matt Dickinson, did a talk with the men about his exploration of Mount Everest. We held a Health and Wellbeing event, teaming up with other departments in the prison, such as healthcare. We hosted a chess day for psychology with a visiting chess master. A local archaeologist visited to give the men information on the Hallaton Treasure. And we also held a card making day for Mother's day, providing all the art materials for them to make their own cards to send out. And we had so much more planned too!
So overall, as a Library we try to promote as much engagement as possible and try to host diverse events that would cater for all.
How did Covid-19 impact your library provision?
The main thing Covid-19 impacted was the fact the Library could not open for residents. However, at the very start of Covid-19 before lockdown, we set in place a strategy to still provide a service if lockdown did occur. We prepared boxes of books, Reading Ahead diaries, DVD's and magazines for each wing and assigned a Library Rep onto each wing to continue the service. These went out when lockdown was announced, and the boxes were then circulated between wings whilst the Library itself was closed. From home, Library staff created activity packs for the men to complete, which included riddles and Sudoku's.
Leicestershire County Council ordered a variety of new DVD's for the prison and Public Libraries around Leicestershire sent in their DVD stock (as they have reduced their DVD service in general).
During lockdown, unfortunately we couldn't provide individual book requests and we could not provide any new stock during this time.
From August, with lockdown restrictions easing, Library staff were allowed back on site to provide a reduced service. We now offer a 'Tick and Collect' service and have assigned a Library rep to each wing. Whoever wants books can fill out the Tick and Collect form and their library rep will return it to us on their designated day each week. On that day, the reps attend the Library (which is now run by staff and one Library orderly per day) giving the forms to the staff and we pick books out for them. We also do any photocopying, DVD exchanges and information requests for the wing on their day. This is a weekly service and has been very popular with the residents. We are also running a 'This space is for you' challenge, which is given to each wing and can be used for either a drawing or a creative writing piece. Everyone who completes it receives a chocolate bar and has their artwork displayed in the Library.
Due to the BBC 'Novels that changed our world' project, we were going to be hosting a Treasure themed art exhibition for Gartree residents in Harborough Museum this October. This has now been rescheduled for April 2021. Art packs were provided to those who were interested during lockdown.
Overall, we tried to provide as much of a service as we possibly could during lockdown. We continue to do our best to encourage engagement with the Library and create a service that is still accessible.
How do you get participants to sign up to and complete Reading Ahead?
A lot of the time, residents who had previously done the Reading Ahead challenge wanted to take part again. The reward of a dictionary and especially a chocolate bar, was a big selling point for the men. We have found it to be very popular in the last two years since we have also offered writing and spelling guides too.
The Library orderlies and staff continuously promote Reading Ahead, with posters dotted around the prison and inside the Library. The prison TV service, Way Out TV, promotes it daily. We have made sure the word has got out as much as possible and continue to encourage the men to take part. We also encourage those who have completed it to promote it for us too. I think a lot of the men take part because their peers have too. We have had a lot of people sign up because their friend has told them about it.
Can you explain how participants benefit from the programme and why they take part?
I think it encourages people to actually want to read. Knowing they will receive a certificate and prizes encourages them to sign up at first, but once they get into reading the books, they realise how enjoyable reading can be and how much they can learn from each book. It's one of those things that you don't know you like until you try it.
Also, a lot of the residents want to engage in a positive activity. The Library is a very calming area and is a place the men like to attend to get away from the prison side of life. I think the environment of the Library and the programme itself work well together to help the men relax and escape from the realities of their situations.
Staff appreciate any positive engagement a resident makes, and we leave a note on their prison record once they have completed a Reading Ahead diary and received their certificate; I think this is an important thing to do as it documents their desire for rehabilitation.
How did running Reading Ahead change due to lockdown and how are you planning to keep it going over the coming months?
The only thing that really changed was the fact that we were not on site to promote it ourselves. However, we made sure Reading Ahead diaries were distributed to each wing and Library Reps now promote it on the wing to the residents. Way Out TV were still promoting it and posters were out for residents to see. It gave the men something purposeful to do during lockdown and we have had diaries returned to us weekly.
As soon as we returned to the prison, I had a backlog of diaries left in the office. I've finally managed to catch up with them all and send out their certificate packs so I think, now that some of the men are receiving their rewards again, it will encourage even more people to try it.
It's nice to be back and to help the reps and orderlies promote it again. Every week, the rep takes more and more Reading Ahead diaries back to their wings to distribute and with the Tick and Collect Service running alongside this, we are getting completers who have never tried it before.
Which books do you find are most popular with visitors to the library and in particular, those who complete Reading Ahead?
I think a lot of people love the non-fiction books. We get people wanting books on how to learn guitar or a language; any book that can teach them something new basically. I also find that some authors and genres are more popular than others, such as James Patterson and the fantasy genre. I have noticed a recent increase in Science Fiction books being requested.
With Reading Ahead, I don't think there is one genre or author that is favoured; the choice of books is so varied and different every time. One of our orderlies has been promoting Peter Swanson and Jojo Moyes to a lot of people so I have found these names popping up more and more!
But overall, the beauty of Reading Ahead is the diversity of choice and the diversity of readers. We have new readers, apprehensive readers and avid readers all wanting to take part and I think the programme gives everyone the chance to try reading with a new purpose and completely without judgement. And everyone here at HMP Gartree will support them through that.
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