Opinion

Beating isolation: books behind bars

Lockdown gave many of us the chance to read more, but it was a different story for those who use books to get through longer-term isolation and couldn’t access them at the most crucial time. Olivia Loveridge of reading charity Give A Book explains how they are helping prisoners during the pandemic

Lockdown’ is not such an unfamiliar term in prisons, but the situation which has been facing prisoners and staff during the pandemic is incredibly tough. Since March, prison lockdowns have meant long days in cells and little or no access to the library, gym, or other activities. Suspension of visits and family days was obviously difficult and isolating, especially considering the lack of internet access.

Give a Book is a charity that runs reading projects in more than 70 UK prisons, including Prison Reading Groups, Books for First Nighters and Family Day books. When prison lockdowns were introduced most prison libraries were locked up, and book supplies were limited. Staff came up with systems to provide books directly to the wings, taking requests and delivering books to cells, along with other resources. We started to send selections of 100 books straight to staff who could distribute them.

The titles are ordered from our publisher partners and contain a mixture of fiction, quick reads, biography and popular non-fiction. A typical selection might include some Lee Child, Harry Potter (a very popular request), Benjamin Zephaniah, classics like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and George Orwell’s 1984 through to recent hits like The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas and Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt. We pick the lists carefully to make sure varied reading abilities and interests are covered.

We have so far sent selections to more than 40 prisons up and down the country. We have also been able to continue supplying book sets to some of our reading groups, whose facilitators have found innovative ways to make groups work remotely, setting up virtual book groups, using a set of discussion questions and asking for one or two-line responses that were shared among members. Groups noted that written responses allowed more time to reflect and assess content as opposed to the immediacy of contributions in face-to-face meetings.

The benefits of reading are many and varied, and now more than ever books can connect us – to family and friends, to the wider world and to ourselves

Groups picked the books they read and lockdown has produced some terrific choices, from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolisthrough to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. One group is shadowing the Carnegie Book Awards, each member reading a different title from the shortlist and providing written feedback to the rest of the group.

Prison Reading Groups (part of Give a Book) is also producing a weekly sheet of BookStuff – poems, short stories, trivia – circulated to prison staff by email to be printed and distributed. We’ve been encouraged by feedback from some of our other projects which have found a way to continue their support throughout lockdown, like Books for First Nighters, our project supplying books for prison induction wings. Prisoners have been happy to receive a book and surprised that it is theirs to keep. Cellmates joke about swapping books once finished, and decide together what to read next.

The benefits of reading are many and varied, and now more than ever books can connect us – to family and friends, to the wider world and to ourselves. Family visits were cancelled during lockdown, an incredibly difficult loss of contact for many prisoners. To help maintain contact, some prisons provide secure mobile phones for prisoners to ring home. Give a Book is providing children’s books that prisoners can read and share with kids during phone calls, and books to send out to children with a note from the parent inside.

More recently, some prisons have started offering video calls for families, where children’s books are provided so that parents can read aloud. We have also sent selections of books to each of the six mother and baby units, for pregnant women and mothers serving sentences with their infants. We work directly with publishers to ensure the titles are up-to-date, appealing and diverse.

Give a Book and Prison Reading Groups have a track record of working with prisons and making book projects work, and are adapting all our projects to provide books where they are needed most right now.

Give a Book is a charity that directs reading materials to people who would otherwise go without.

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