Rightly the press and media are awash with stories about new rules meaning that prisoners can no longer be sent books by relatives. We've been working in prisons for several years and do not believe that the changes will affect our ability to provide programmes such as the Six Book Challenge or World Book Night as long as prison libraries get the profile and resources they need. Genevieve Clarke, who works on both of these programmes, reacts to the debate.
Rehabilitation is key
What's the best way to escape from prison? In a book. It's an old joke but it's a hot topic right now with argument raging about the extent to which Government rules about what can be sent in by families or ordered direct by prisoners are affecting their access to books. In fact these rules have been in force since November 2013 and our informal research with prison contacts indicates that, as with other guidelines, they have been open to individual interpretation by governors.
We believe that books are essential to every prisoner's rehabilitation rather than a privilege to be earned. Our work in prisons across the UK - the Six Book Challenge and World Book Night - demonstrates that the capacity to read and enjoy books contributes to reducing re-offending and giving prisoners another chance in life. With 48% of prisoners estimated to have low reading skills (Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Autumn 2013), it's vital that they are able to develop their literacy in prison and an engagement in reading is crucial to this process.
Role of the prison library
We work with around 100 prison around the UK with 7000 prisoners having taken part in the Six Book Challenge last year. "You get a sense of achievement, of doing something positive," said a prisoner in HMP Pentonville. "In your cell reading, it's like meditation. You can shut off the rest of the world, your problems, and just focus."
Nick Walmsley, Head of Corruption Prevention & Counter Terrorism at Pentonville, is convinced by the benefits for prisoners: "The Six Book Challenge encourages them to come into our library and use the facilities and get back into education. Not only does it assist prisoners whilst they are in prison, but that when they leave, it has a positive effect on an ex-prisoner's ability to remain an ex-prisoner, and not re-offend." (Photo: Nick Walmsley and Mona Banerjee from Pentonville prison receiving their gold award for achieving more than 150 Six Book Challenge completers from Adele Parks. Photo by Tom Parkes)
At least the debate throws useful light on the role of the prison library - in the best case an oasis of sanity and a door to a new world, especially for those who get into reading for the first time while in prison. Often below the radar it's notable they've been cited by ministers in the current controversy as a prime source of books for prisoners. Let's make this the moment when prison libraries are given due attention, improved where necessary, made much more accessible for all prisoners and put at the heart of a learning culture in prisons.
Read more about some of our work in prisons and the One Quick Read One Prison project which saw prisoners and prison staff all reading, reviewing and talking about the same Quick Reads book.
If you're running the Six Book Challenge in prisons we've compiled some top tips on engaging prisoners and helping them complete the Challenge.