Social Justice

'People in prison need art, music and reading': Inside the prison libraries that break down walls

Around two-thirds of prisoners in England and Wales have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old – prison libraries are pivotal in changing that

Paperchains project workers (from left) director Jo Billingham, co-founder David Kendall, actor, writer and contributor Gary, and AG Smith

To many, AG Smith is the Librarian – the creative force behind ghostly storytelling project Weeping Bank. But the author, who in 2020 and 2022 spoke to Big Issue about Paperchains, a creative project through which prisoners shared their experiences of lockdowns, also works in prison libraries across the UK. 

That began when Smith was working for a landscaping firm that trained ex-offenders. “The very last apprentice we took on had spent some time in [young offender institution] Brinsford,” he says. “He said to me that it saved his life. He was only in there for about six months, but was taken on by the farms and gardens team. I started to think, how interesting would it have been to be one of many people who would have maybe helped to set him on a different route?” 

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Smith began to look for prison jobs and, fortuitously, a librarian role came up at Brinsford.  

“There were 16-to-18-year-olds in the prison, it’s not necessary a population that’s used to going to the library, so I started to make it look more like a newsagent, he says. “Everything was displayed face-on. I thought, well, the lads are used to shopping in that way.” 

He then worked with the National Literacy Trust on the Six Book Challenge, “encouraging new emergent readers to read six books, filling in a reading diary as they went along. That was brilliant. It had never been done in a young offender institution before and the challenge aspect really appealed to the lads.”

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This led to a second collaboration with the Trust, Books Unlocked, which provides prisoners with copies of a Booker Prize shortlisted or longlisted title to read, discuss and keep. He selected Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman because he “felt the subject matter would resonate”. 

But he “faced many, many obstacles, including the group itself – these lads didn’t know one another. There was a lot of tension sometimes, so the early sessions were very much me building trust. I just read to them for the first two sessions, gave them plenty of coffee and biscuits. And by about the third day, they were absolutely hooked, and all of a sudden, one of the lads said, ‘I’ll read for a bit,’ so I sat back, and after that, I probably never read another page.” 

Following the success of the project, Kelman visited the prison. “It felt like that was a way of breaking down those walls,” Smith says. “If we’re going to work towards helping to reduce reoffending, people have got to reintegrate into the community and feel like they’re part of it and valued.” 

According to the National Literacy Trust, around two-thirds of the roughly 80,000 people in custody in England and Wales have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old.  This is over four times higher than in the general population. And 47% of prisoners have no educational qualifications at all. 

Prison libraries play an integral part in the teaching of literacy and functional skills that are requirements to most careers and daily life.  Learning to read can reduce stress and vulnerability, improve resilience, self-confidence and future prospects.

A 2017 Ministry of Justice report shows that prisoners who took part in educational activity were 9% less
likely to re-offend compared to non-library users. 

Amid ongoing cuts to prison and library services, Smith’s work is vital. “People in prison need to see the impact of the decisions they’ve made, and they can explore through art, through music, through reading,” he says. “That’s where mindsets can change.” 

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