Image: Lou Levit
Nearly half (46%) of people who have entered prison since August 2014 have low literacy skills, compared to 15% of the general population, according to new figures from the government. HMP Springhill is one of 125 prisons and young offender institutions taking part in our Reading Ahead programme this year, to promote reading for pleasure and help prisoners improve their literacy skills.
David Kendall, a consultant for Reading Ahead, regularly visits prisons around the country to speak to residents and encourage them to sign up. Here, he blogs about a recent visit to HMP Springhill where he spoke to residents about how they could expand their reading through Reading Ahead and how developing their skills has helped and inspired them.
From William Gibson to Sister Souljah
Walking through HMP Springhill on a summer's evening with Erwin James I am struck at how relaxed it feels, none of the usual tension - or perhaps sunshine makes it invisible. Open (or Category D) prisons are about greater independence and the freedom to walk around is valued here. Today, as we walk to the library it's raining, but feeling the rain is still precious.
I'm here to talk about Reading Ahead with the residents. The circle of chairs is filling up and the box of biscuits is out. Soon the room is full. Oddly the first people in are all called Dave. One is reading Spartacus. Perhaps we should all be Daves for the day? They hesitate and then agree; names and their use are important in prison. The Daves are wide readers: William Gibson to Sister Souljah, with plumbing and Sumerian mythology in between. One had never read anything but non-fiction but was converted by Jack Reacher. "Read the first page and couldn't stop. Read them all."
Other Daves nod their agreement. "I read trash. Ben Elton. That kind of thing. When I first came in I read all the things I thought I should, that I felt were the right things. Hemingway and Huxley. Maybe I should go back to something more challenging."
"There were so many words I didn't know the meaning of"
"I'm into magic. A couple of years I couldn't read or write. I started with lyrics and poems. You know, the way you copy out the best bits to put in letters to your beloved, and I just worked my way through. Reading more and more. I didn't have anyone to help me. I just made my own way."
Image: João Silas
Magic Dave, like many of the residents I speak to, has improved his reading skills with the support of the prison librarians. He has the zeal of the newly converted, of seeing the world through hungry eyes. "I want to learn. I want to help people. Before there were so many words I didn't know the meaning of. People would be talking around me, using all these different words, and I didn't know what they were saying, whether they were disrespecting me."
Reading Ahead gives the prisoners a framework and an opportunity to get their thoughts onto paper. I find the books I remember the most are the ones I have written about or talked about - somehow that lodges them in my brain.
Sometimes when I visit these groups there can be tension in my role. Am I the teacher who tells them what to read, to validate their reading, to ask is this any good, have you read this? Then sometimes they will politely ignore my suggestion or tell me bluntly. "No, that's s***e. What are you reading for your diary? What is your challenge?"
"I disappear into someone else"
The Daves think it would be a good idea to try more of the 'classics'. We discuss what this actually means - a book shelved in the classics section? Is Agatha Christie a classic in the same way as Trollope? I'm asked to choose one for Fantasy Dave. I run my fingers over the spines: Dumas, Conrad, and Hemmingway. I push for a Conrad. Fantasy Dave looks sceptical but takes the book.
Here in Category D world the men fit their reading around work and education. The regulars come into the library and then mosey off on their rota of things to do in much the same way I do.
"I was sixty-five when I came in here. Never read a book. Now I read all the time. I disappear into someone else."
In a Category A prison, where movement is much more restricted, men live for days in their imagination. In the Cat D world there is an end in sight. What was just in the imagination is now creeping under the reality wire. Some will go to their local library, do their emails, look for jobs and join up with the world.
The group is starting to disperse. The biscuits are gone; the sign up sheets are all filled in. It looks as if everyone is going to give Reading Ahead a go. I say goodbye to the Daves. Wish them well with their reading. Walk towards the gate, still hearing Magic Dave's words: "Once you get reading, there's no stopping you. You can go anywhere. Explore the whole world."
Find out how to run Reading Ahead at your organisation.
Read more about our work in prisons
Read David's blog about his work as an independent consultant in reading