Reading in prisons – why it matters

The Ministry of Justice’s decision to ban serving prisoners from receiving books from outside is one of those deeply (and I suspect, often, deliberately) polarising interventions which will be as enthusiastically welcomed by some as it will be roundly condemned by others.

Those who see the purpose of prison as being wholly or in large part punitive will applaud the justice secretary for taking steps to make the prison experience less ‘cushy’. Those who see prison as being, in the main, about rehabilitation and reintegration into society will see this as, at best, an unnecessary and unhelpful ‘extra punishment’ and, at worst, as a serious infringement of prisoners’ human rights.

This is a hugely divisive issue and I think it’s important to write about it in a way that does not make it more so (we won’t get far here without informed public debate). If you (or someone close to you) have been a victim of serious crime it can be difficult to think of prison in terms of rehabilitation, particularly in cases where the prisoner has shown no sign of remorse (the thought that prison might give offenders the chance to better themselves, to advance in life, can be hard to take). The apparently kneejerk sympathy of people on the left can open up old wounds. People like to see politicians being ‘tough’ on prisoners and, while it can be easy to point to the often highly calculated (and frequently counterproductive) nature of this kind of posturing, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss those who applaud it.

Nevertheless, I think we need to be realistic. Most of the people serving prison sentences will at some point return to society. They will live in the same cities, towns and villages as other people, work alongside them, send their children to the same schools and vote in the same elections. It makes sense therefore that we, as a society, take steps to ensure that when people do emerge from the prison system they do so better equipped to play a useful part in their communities than they were when they entered it.

This is why education and access to reading materials in prisons is so important, and why restricting this is likely to prove, in the long term, extremely costly, both socially and economically. Prisons are full of offenders with very low educational levels, often lacking the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. These people will need help if they are to successfully reintegrate into society. To send people back into society without that help is to send them out with no hope of anything better for themselves, and makes recidivism much more likely. It is also a huge waste of resources.

It is unsurprising that education reduces the risk of reoffending (though, evidently, its impact depends also on interventions in other areas, for example, in employment and housing, and of course in access to education once people leave prison). Access to books and other reading materials is particularly important. Last year, Adults Learning reported on the impact of a prison reading project which has been supporting reading groups behind bars for 14 years (led by Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley, of the University of Roehampton). It showed how involvement in reading groups not only improved people’s literacy but also opened up new horizons for prisoners, built empathy, strengthened family and community ties and gave offenders hope for the future, improved confidence and the ambition to do something more useful with their lives after prison. A quote from one of the participants indicates how reading and participation in reading groups helped prisoners develop a sense of community, of shared values, and a different appreciation of the people around them:

For one hour a month the walls of my confinement crumble to dust and I feel respected. Not just by fellow inmates, but by citizens from the wider community, members of the society into which I’ll one day be released – by the two women who run the group, and by the visitors they invite. For one hour a month my opinion is valid, I am listened to and others care what I have to say. In the book group, everyone is given a voice, all have an equal say. For one hour a month, I am allowed to be the individual I used to be and am not defined by my crime.

It is difficult to think of any other activity that could give people in prison such a sense of other possibilities, a chance to rethink and revaluate (themselves and their relationships to others), to put themselves in others’ shoes, while also developing critical basic skills which everyone needs in order to function adequately in society. As Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley argue, it is the development of ‘imaginative capital’ – the capacity to think differently, particularly about other people – which makes reading so uniquely valuable.

It’s easy to see why people react so strongly on issues like this – and why the thought of offenders gaining advantage of some sort while in the prison system is offensive or hurtful to some. But we must also realise that offenders are a part of society too and, with a very large and growing prison population (and high rates of recidivism), we simply cannot afford, either economically or socially, to support a prison system which does people only harm. Rehabilitation and reintegration must be important dimensions of any prison system, and education must be a key part of that. Restricting the opportunities for offenders to learn, to develop empathy, to connect with the wider community, really doesn’t make too much sense.

Ensuring an inclusive, informed and unclouded debate on these issues is perhaps another challenge for lifelong learning.




Reading is for everyone

For many of us, as children, it is through reading that we get our first glimpse of a wider world, of difference, of beauty, darkness and danger. We read to escape, to discover, to laugh and to connect. We also read to learn. Reading can teach us to think and imagine, as well as developing more basic skills and capabilities which are pretty much essential in managing our day-to-day lives.

Yet, reading remains, for far too many of us, something that is for other people. This is partly to do with the failings of our compulsory education system – one in six adults of working age in the UK is estimated to have difficulty reading – but it is also a cultural issue. The problem is that, for very many people, reading has not been a source of joy and inspiration. It may well have been a lifelong struggle, associated, often, with feelings of anxiety, shame and humiliation. Or it may simply be they have never found the right sort of book (my Dad, for example, a lifelong Liverpool fan who has never felt much of an urge to read, recently devoured David Peace’s brilliant but difficult – and very, very long – Red or Dead).

It is little wonder that so many people simply do not see reading as being for them. They have never found a way to relate to or be comfortable with books. For these people, reading for pleasure can be hugely daunting. Entering a bookshop can be an intimidating experience. I remember how I felt at 16, on a YTS, taking one of those lovely, orange-and-white Penguin Modern Classics to the counter of Dillon’s bookshop in Liverpool. I assumed everyone who worked in the shop had read everything on the shelves. I also thought that, with the education I imagined they’d had, they knew far more than I did and had a far better understanding of books than I could ever have. I felt (wrongly) judged and inadequate. It felt better buying books in Woolworths or Boots.

For people who feel uncomfortable with books, who feel reading may not be for them, it often isn’t enough just to create an opportunity for them to be with and learn about books. They need support, encouragement and, perhaps above all, a place to start. In many cases this won’t be a bookshop. It will be in a classroom, the workplace or somewhere else in the community where they feel comfortable. Two remarkable initiatives illustrate how important these venues can be, and how much difference the right kind of support can make.

The first, Quick Reads, is a partnership of publishers, authors and adult education providers dedicated to improving literacy and engagement with reading. It has produced dozens of high-quality, short and fast-paced books by best-selling authors aimed at people who lack confidence as readers, and ensured they get into the hands of the people who can benefit from them most – those least likely to pick up a book.

An impact evaluation, carried out at the end of last year, demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive impact Quick Reads have on adult learners’ confidence and attitudes to reading and on their literacy skills, making literature accessible to more and more learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds associated with low participation in learning. The books are used year-on-year by practitioners in settings as diverse as prisons, libraries, family learning groups and workplaces, turning, as one tutor put it, ‘non-readers into readers’.

 The second notable project is The Reader Organisation. I’ve written at length about The Reader before. It’s an amazing project which demonstrates how great literature can be for everyone. I remember my last visit to the project, going out to a mental health centre where a group of young men who had probably never heard of Norman Mailer were reading The Fight, his barnstorming account of the 1974 boxing title fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It was brilliant to see not only how the book resonated with these men, but how they grew in confidence through reading and listening. I also visited a reading group at Toxteth Library where it was obvious how members of the group relished dissecting a poem and how they benefited from the mutual support and encouragement of the others in the group.

The two approaches are different but I think they complement each other. Both have succeeded in making readers – and learners – out of people who had little interest in books before. They show that no-one should feel that reading and books aren’t for them. I know that from my own experience. Finding the right books for you, and finding people you can talk to and share your passion with, is incredibly important. I overcame my fear of bookshops and have since worked in a fair few myself. I can still happily spend hours browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s or breathing in the dust of a second-hand bookshop.

Reading opens so many doors. But first you need to be comfortable enough to think books can be for you. There need to be places and people who can support and signpost. As last year’s PIAAC report highlighted, the challenges in this area are huge, and there is a very significant job to be done in ensuring there is support out there for people taking that first step into reading. Critically, we need to ensure that there is well-funded adult education provision out there for people to access, in ways and in settings that suit them. For so many people, that is where they make their start, where fires are set that last a lifetime. As everyone who has discovered a love of reading will know, it is a wonderful thing to plant a seed. But flowers do not grow by themselves.

Reading, culture and citizenship

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens quotes a description, by one of Dickens’ early biographers, of a visit to a Liverpool locksmith around the time of the publication of The Pickwick Papers: ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children.’ The novel had been hired by the group, whose members could not afford a shilling for the monthly number (and who were, in all likelihood, mostly illiterate), ‘for twopence a day, from the circulating library’. The story is indicative not only of the tremendously broad appeal of Dickens’ novels – and the excitement with which they were anticipated, by people of all classes and ages – but also of the role shared reading can play in stimulating enthusiasm for books, and for culture more generally, introducing the world of literature to people who might not feel comfortable with books or who might, perhaps for good reasons, think they are not for them.

It seems appropriate that this locksmith’s story should be set in Liverpool as the city is the home of Jane Davis’s Reader Organisation, which, over the past decade or so, has pioneered shared reading, facilitating reading groups in an array of settings (in Liverpool and beyond) in which people do not have ready access to literature, such as care homes, hospitals, prisons, mental health centres and hostels. ‘We teach being with books,’ was how Jane explained the work when I first interviewed her five or six years ago. The Reader Organisation was recently chosen as official partner in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s campaign to transform Liverpool into ‘the foremost reading city in the country’. The project, which follows a report from the Liverpool Education Committee on improving school attainment, will aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure among all the city’s primary school children – a hugely important objective, as the OECD recently recognised when it concluded that reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining social mobility.

The locksmith’s reading circle also put me in mind of a story Richard Hoggart told about the funeral of Byron, when I interviewed him a few years ago. Working people queued for days to pay their respects and lined the streets for the funeral procession, he told me, because serious literature mattered to them, because they felt it was something that did not just belong to other people. ‘People felt bereft,’ he said. ‘And I’m talking about the man in the street’. Great literature is for everyone. There is an amazing tradition of working people engaging with books and other forms of culture, from self-help and mutual improvement groups to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the university extension movement. It was documented wonderfully well in Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which, tellingly, has been a significant inspiration to Jane Davis. Rose’s book remains a challenge, as well as an inspiration, to all those who work in the broad tradition of adult education, in what we used to term ‘this great movement of ours’. When the WEA was formed at the start of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin headed students’ reading lists – an indication, Richard Hoggart suggests, not only of educational ambition but of the ‘spirit of the age’.

The Reader Organisation sees itself as contributing to this tradition. Jane Davis believes not only that reading matters, but that what you read matters. The reading groups do not simply encourage engagement with books but engagement with books that open up to readers, in Jane’s words, ‘a world of powerful ideas, tremendous vocabulary, social visions, ideals, personal knowledge’. Members of the groups are encouraged to discuss, to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences – no one is pressured to contribute and all contributions are treated equally. The aim is to encourage debate, not to close it down – to give people confidence with books and with ‘big learning’ and big themes. Richard Hoggart talks about ‘a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working-class life’, and, in a way, this approach cultivates that, giving people the resources they need to take charge of their own learning, to make up their own minds, to assert their ownership. There is a parallel with the teaching of history. Where it works best it is about creating debate, contesting ‘facts’, disrupting the established narrative, finding relevance in one’s own times and experiences – as Richard J Evans argues, it is about ‘myth-busting’ rather than ‘myth-making’ (the idea of a single cogent – and, presumably, closed – narrative is not only bad, it is likely to be a huge turn-off to most students). Critically, it is also about citizenship.

The Workers’ Education Association grew up, in part, as a result of attempts to redefine citizenship in a moment in history when the franchise was being extended – the early reading lists reflect this. Matthew Arnold’s prominence on them is particularly significant. Arnold’s own attempts to find out ‘what culture really is, what good it can do, what is our own special need of it’ coincided both with a period of rapid social change and with the widening of the franchise to include more members of the middle classes. For him, culture – by which he understood ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (he had a very literary perspective on culture, and took a rather narrow view of the cultural claims of science) – represented a way of preparing people for citizenship. It was important, Arnold felt, that citizens be able to challenge received ideas, to think more and in a more organised way, to develop principles of action and to act cooperatively and collectively, putting sectional interests aside for the good of society. It was to culture that he looked for the development of these capabilities.

As in Matthew Arnold’s time, and in the early decades of the WEA’s existence, these are challenging times for democracy, and rethinking citizenship is again on the agenda. With national fates increasingly determined by forces seemingly beyond political control, democracy is under threat and extremism is on the rise (particularly in southern Europe where the seeming powerlessness of national governments is most exposed). In the UK, with referenda on both Scottish independence and EU membership in the offing, we face major choices about the future shape of our polity. Yet the quality of political debate here is shamingly poor. Despite an economic crisis unprecedented in the lifetimes of many citizens – a crisis caused by the financial sector – the focus of debate has been overwhelmingly on public-sector cuts and the benefits provided for the most vulnerable in society. At the same time, there is a political consensus among all main parties – and the mainstream media – about the amount of tax that should be raised from the very wealthy which ensures that issue is never seriously discussed. With political debate so constrained, and politicians seemingly unable to talk straightforwardly about what they believe (unsurprising, perhaps, when the repetition of a half-truth so often trumps fact and evidence, and goes largely unchallenged by the media), it is hardly startling to find that people are turned off by conventional politics – and are increasingly looking beyond the mainstream parties for change.

Some of the problems Matthew Arnold was responding to are still relevant but the sort of thinking he did about education and citizenship is no longer fashionable. Adult education with a social purpose has been in retreat for many decades, out of step, perhaps fatally, with the ‘spirit of the age’. Yet it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need education that is, in the words of Jane Davis, ‘personal, creative, demanding and filled, as literature is, with useful equipment for the inner life’. The history of this ‘great movement of ours’ tells us that education can change things, and that there is a clear link between the sort of education we offer and the sort of citizens we get. Initiatives like those pioneered by The Reader Organisation are encouraging. They show the appetite many people have for learning that is imaginative, ambitious and socially purposeful. As Arnold too understood, education is not simply about preparing people for work – it is about giving people the resources they need to realise themselves fully, as individuals and as citizens.

My recent article on the work of The Reader Organisation, published in Adults Learning, is available here