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Books behind bars: Not even Covid can stop the prison librarian

Covid presented a huge challenge for prisoners' mental health. Prison librarian Kelly Fuller's work bringing books to those behind bars was more important than ever.
Illustration: Joseph Joyce

For most of March 2020 we had been taking extra precautions – wiping down stock and surfaces, washing our hands until they cracked and offering a squirt of (specially permitted!) hand sanitiser to anyone who came through the library door. The notice to close and stay home wasn’t a shock, but it was a surprise that it had come so quickly – we’d left the library on Friday fully intending to open up again on the Monday. My first thought was, how do we get back in and keep library provision going?

The thought of being banged up in your prison cell without warning, without anything to do and without any idea as to when the situation might change was seriously concerning for the mental health of the prison population – a demographic already known to be severely at risk.

After several drafts of a risk assessment, a newly designed service plan and with the approval of multiple senior figures, our lockdown library service began less than a month later on April 16. Twice a week we circumnavigate the prison with a trolley, visiting each wing in the morning to collect request forms and returns. All returns are then quarantined for a minimum of 72 hours. We then read the request forms and make up named, labelled bundles to be delivered later that day. Men can borrow books, DVDs, music CDs and audiobooks. The trolley comes out again to cart all of the loans back to the wings, to be handed out to individuals by wing officers. We’re not allowed to visit individual cells, only hand items through the main wing door to officers.

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Only ever intended to be a temporary service, here we still are a year later. We’ve delivered in 32C blazing sun, -3C frost, howling wind and pouring rain. Being a prison librarian is not glamorous, and waterproof trousers are essential! 

DVDs have always been traditionally most popular, but as time has gone on, book issues are almost equalling film requests. Fortunately we have been able to place reservations in the wider Wiltshire Library service since September, which are delivered to us weekly. Popular books include A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and The Chronicles of St Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor. In order to avoid disappointment, we ask our customers not to be too specific, but to ask for “an action film” or “a sci-fi book”. This surprise element both helps us to make the most of our (not huge) stock and to expand the tastes of our customers.   

Moving from a face-to-face service to correspondence only is a big change, but one that hasn’t excluded meaningful conversations – we now have pen pals instead. Some of our best customers are ones we’ve never met, whether it’s because they transferred in after March 2020, or they never thought to try the library before then. It’s an odd feeling to recognise someone’s handwriting and know their taste in books, but have no idea what they look like! Scribbled notes thank us for our choices and our time and tell us how important the library service has been for their wellbeing. 

Prior to lockdown the library was popular, although there were always those who would visit more to socialise with each other than to borrow (which isn’t always a bad thing). Now every single interaction we have is with a borrower or information seeker who needs our time, our help and our resources.

It’s not easy. We don’t have nearly as much time as we would like due to restrictions. Stock and notes get lost in transit. We have to work alone – there are only two prison library staff and we’ve met in person twice since last March instead of seeing one another nearly every day. We can’t make an informative display when no one is allowed in to see it. We can’t spend 10 minutes chatting to someone about what their local library can offer them once they’re released. We can’t offer a calm space, shelves of stock for people to choose for themselves and half an hour away from the prison regime. Our customers are often demotivated and bored and frustrated – just like us on the outside. All the more reason to press on, stay positive and maintain the library service to the best of our ability.

We’ve been lucky enough to receive some wonderful donations and the Prison Reading Groups charity have helped to continue our existing book group – again by correspondence only. The book group have enjoyed Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. We also shadowed the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals which we’re going to try and do again this year. We have great plans to introduce the new offerings from Storybook Dads and promote the 2021 Reading Ahead six-book challenge. We want to encourage people to join their local library when they leave prison and let them know all the help and support that is out there, as well as continuing to read. And of course we want to reopen to our customers as soon as it is safe to do so. Public libraries aim to be the centre of their community – our aim as part of our prison community is no different.

Find out the books that have got prisoners through lockdown here.