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Books in prisons: a vital lifeline

Written by Lizzie Cain, 24th March 2014

New rules by the justice secretary ban anyone sending books to prisoners. The Reader Organisation does not support this measure and urges you to sign this petition opposing restrictions on reading.

The stats about reading speak for themselves:

  • 70% of pupils permanently excluded from school lack basic literacy skills (National Literacy Trust)
  • 60% of the prison population lack basic literacy skills (National Literacy Trust)
  • 20% cannot fill in a job application form (Prison Reform Trust)
  • 75% of adult prisoners have a dual diagnosis of mental health problems combined with alcohol or drug misuse (Prison Reform Trust)

Writer, TRO patron and former prisoner Erwin James wrote about our work in prisons for the Guardian recently, and is interviewed in the brand new issue of The Reader magazine about his own prison reading experiences. For him, it is clear that reading offered the possibility of change:

I did not think I had the intellectual capacity to think outside my four cell walls.

I wouldn’t have called myself a thinker but in prison you live inside your head. Everyone is a thinker in jail.

I was literate, thankfully – so many people in prison are not. Joan Branton, the psychologist, lent me a number of books, among them Dostoevsky’s 'Crime and Punishment', a dark tale with huge resonance to me; it was depressing but at the same time also very compelling. And Joan started giving me the mental tools to try and figure out how I’d become what I’d become.

Read the full interview with Erwin in Issue 53 of The Reader.

We run shared reading groups in prisons across the UK each week, bringing men and women together to share great literature, connect with each other and improve wellbeing. Reading and shared reading groups provide opportunities for self-reflection, increase confidence, encourage greater social engagement, all of which contribute to reducing reoffending.

From mistakes that I’ve made in the first few stories about what I thought about characters, I’ve learnt not to judge a character too quickly, not to rush in but reserve my judgement, not to judge people. Yeah, I think it has affected the way I am with people too.” 

Shared Reading group member, HMP Frankland

 “I spend a lot of time lying in my room.  A lot of the time, I’m not even there really.  I don’t know where I am.  I’m just – I don’t know – just a lump.  And then I come here and I’m thinking so much.  My thoughts are going in all sorts of unexpected directions.  And it changes things.  I mean - I’m not the same when I go back to my room.”                                                   Shared reading group member HMP Liverpool

 67% of those we read with feel more understanding towards each other and 61% feel more positive about life. Read the most recent research report into our work in prisons here.  

Reading opens doors, offers intellectual and emotional development and helps us to evaluate our place in society. It is vital that those in prison are given access to books and the opportunity to discover their potential through reading.

2 thoughts on “Books in prisons: a vital lifeline

Reblogged this on Sue Russell Writes and commented:
The confines of a cell without books – therein madness lies. News from the UK.

[…] The Reader Organisation have written a fantastic explanation of the importance of books to prisoners and this article in the Guardian shows how books were important to several prisoners during their incarceration. […]

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