International bestselling author Martina Cole has called on all prisons and young offender institutions (YOIs) across the UK to sign up for The Reading Agency’s annual, nationwide Six Book Challenge to increase literacy skills among prisoners and help reduce reoffending rates. She was speaking at a special event – held yesterday at the Free Word Centre, The Reading Agency’s central London home – for prisons already running the scheme. (The Reading Agency is an independent charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life, by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers.)
Launched in 2008 by The Reading Agency, the Six Book Challenge is increasingly recognised as a key intervention using reading for pleasure to help tackle this country’s continuing skills deficit. As recently highlighted by an OECD study England’s 16- to 24-year-olds rank 22nd out of the 24 countries taking part for literacy skills (see ‘Notes to editors’).However, ninety per cent of survey respondents say that they are more confident about reading after taking part in the Six Book Challenge, which invites them to pick six reads of their choice and complete a reading diary in order to get a certificate.
Martina Cole, rated by prison library staff as the most widely read author in prisons, is the ambassador for the 2014 Six Book Challenge. She said: “I meet a lot of prisoners who really struggle with literacy but they’re prepared to give my books a go. What I like about the Six Book Challenge is that it’s encouraging people to read who wouldn’t otherwise do so.I’m really happy to be supporting it." She added: "Next year I will do a Six Book Challenge tour and visit lots of participating prisons.”
Over 100 prisons now run the Six Book Challenge with around 7000 prisoners taking part this year. However this is still under 10% of the UK’s prison population of 93,000, half of which have poor literacy skills. The Reading Agency aims to reach at least 10% of offenders and extend use of the Six Book Challenge to all 150 prisons, YOIs and secure units in the UK by 2015.
"Low literacy blights the chance for far too many prisoners to turn their lives around. But we’ve seen the Six Book Challenge make a difference to their attitude to reading and learning and help them make a new start in preparation for release,” said Genevieve Clarke, adult literacy specialist at The Reading Agency. “We’re determined to extend it to all prisons and deepen its impact where it is already used. Martina Cole’s support in promoting the scheme to prisoners and prison staff will definitely help us to achieve this.”
As ambassador for the 2014 Six Book Challenge Martina Cole will be visiting prisons to talk about the scheme. She has already spoken at an event at HMP Lewes in Sussex on 3 October to mark its success in the Prison Libraries’ Group Prison Library of the Year competition, and on 15 October she visited HMP Swaleside in Kent as their ‘prize’ for winning the 2013 Six Book Challenge draw for participating prisons.
Twenty prisons received special awards from The Reading Agency this year for the number of prisoners they supported for the 2013 Six Book Challenge, including HMP Pentonville in London which has achieved 236 completers.
“Seven out of ten of our prisoners say they have a learning or literacy problem,” said Nick Walmsley, regimes manager at HMP Pentonville. “We are convinced that doing the Six Book Challenge encourages them to come into our library and use the facilities and get back into education. And we all believe that 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.”
"I love the Six Book Challenge,” said keynote speaker Gabrielle Lee, governor, HMYOI Deerbolt in County Durham, which won a silver award for 115 young offenders completing the Six Book Challenge. “It takes real courage to attempt something like this when you've not had success at school. Getting prisoners to start the Challenge can also be the time when they realise they may need some help in other areas of their life. If we get their trust through the Challenge it can lead on to looking at ways they can make other changes."
The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge in prisons is supported with funding from the City of London Corporation’s charity City Bridge Trust, the Bromley Trust and Give a Book which has donated dictionaries to Six Book Challenge completers.