Wednesday 23 January 2013

Here, they don't have to be prisoners...

There was an interesting account by Ros Coward in The Guardian 15th January 2013 of one of the Prison Reading Groups. We quote from it below.
'The reading group in Wandsworth jail offers offenders a welcome escape from their restricted lives
Wandsworth prison is an ominous place with its dark brickwork, iconic gates and perimeter walls topped by billowing rolls of barbed wire. The prison library, however, looks a bit like a comfy community library.
I'm here at the invitation of academics Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey who have been running volunteer reading groups in Wandsworth and other prisons for the last 13 years. Recent policy has prioritised vocational qualifications for prisoners. But Turvey sees the groups as equally vital. "The majority of prisoners have had negative experiences of school and are wary of formal education in prison," she says. "We're helping prisoners develop skills they need before they can even think about qualifications."
Tonight, Turvey and Niamh Fahey, the assistant librarian, are running a group for 14 high-security prisoners. Fahey unlocks them from the individual cells they have been in since 5pm the previous evening. They bring with them their book of the week, Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English.
Turvey invites responses from the group. John, older and educated, gives a precis. "The book is depressing," he says. "This kid comes to England to find a quieter life but ends up in worse turmoil."
Stephen, a slight young man, says he found it compelling and redolent of the Damilola Taylor case. "The descriptions of the estate made me laugh. They were just like where I live. But it wasn't always easy to tell who was speaking."
This theme is taken up by an exceptionally well-spoken young man. Although he had "never experienced the world of gangs", he found the way the boy had to hide behind a tough facade illuminating. But he disliked the "false naivety" of the protagonist. A bespectacled middle-aged man concurs. "I couldn't work the boy out. He was integrated well enough to have picked up the slang, but at other moments he seems totally naive, as if he's just off the boat." Pause. "If you'll forgive the expression."
A discussion breaks out about the use of patois in the book. "I'm from up north," says one, "and I found it excluding." "Well, I'm from the north too," says John, a Geordie, "but I didn't have so much difficulty. That's because I've had several black cellmates." Paul, who is black, says he could identify with how people got caught up in these gangs but wasn't engaged by the book. "Personally, I didn't like it, " says Omar, "even though it was about someone struggling to fit in. I couldn't follow the narrative. It was more like a series of short stories."
I look round the group, wondering how they had ended up here. "It's something we never ask ourselves," says Turvey. "For one hour in these groups they don't have to be prisoners, they can be readers."
A theme emerges. They are fed up with what they call "boy books", especially those connected to news stories. "The Damilola case was tragic," says John, "but we've reached saturation point with all these plays and books. Maybe it's just because we're in prison, but it seems to get thrown in your face."
Peter agrees. "Books like these don't take you out of yourself," he says. "It's the whole business of books these days, they are so lightweight. I think the authors are running out of ideas. So many are based on historical fact rather than what you'd imagine an author should take inspiration from. If they were to write about a couple of people who went into the woods and had a Socratic dialogue, that wouldn't be so popular. They are only interested in what's in the news. But for this to get on the Booker shortlist! I mean, compare this with Midnight's Children, how could you ever put them in the same category?"
The rest of the group listens respectfully. "One of our only rules," says Sarah, "is they should wait their turn. But it's never enforced because it never arises. They always listen to each other's opinion."
Peter says he keeps coming "because it's an opportunity to talk about something other than crime or sport or whatever you talk about in the cell, which tends to be very matter-of-fact. Fabio Capello [former England football manager] says you only need 200 words to get by in English football. Well, you only need 100 in prison."
"You're right," says Stephen, "all the conversations in prison are just banal. No one has a standpoint. Here, you can have an argument and hear other people's point of view."
"It's lovely to see people relax," says Fahey, the librarian, who says it is her favourite part of the job. "The prison is full of tension. But there's never any friction here. That's quite special. It's an oasis."
The skills that emerge in reading groups, says Hartley, are respect for others' opinions, learning to express oneself, and overcoming aggression. "Listening to each other's opinions," says Hartley, "is about learning you can disagree but remain friends. All sorts of arguments come out from a book or character. That's what literature is for."
Turvey and Hartley hope more prison authorities will recognise the value of their groups in promoting those all-important "soft skills". But their motivation clearly goes deeper. "I love it," says Hartley. "It gives me such a buzz. This is something which matters to them, so it matters to me."'
Give a Book is delighted to be supporting these groups. Now go back to the Give a Book Home Page.


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