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New remote book club at HMP Thameside

Over the last 18 months HMP Thameside, managed by Serco on behalf of the MOJ, has created a book club where prisoners can review and discuss books remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In HMP Thameside’s internal newsletter, Reducing Reoffending, a volunteer with the Prison Reading Groups (PRG) wrote an article on the book club’s history and how it got established:

“I’m a volunteer with the charity PRG and have been going into HMP Thameside on a monthly (occasionally twice-monthly) basis for the last five years or so to discuss books, short stories, poems and literature generally with prisoners.

“One of the first casualties of the pandemic for me personally was the closure of the prisons to outsiders. I had even prepared a book (read it and thought up good questions to fire up a discussion) for an upcoming session, which was, of course, abandoned, with little sense of when that might resume.

“PRG strove to maintain a toehold in the face of this summary closure of all prisons, issuing their pamphlet ‘Bookstuff’ on a regular basis, with a mixture of wit, wisdom and literary trivia. It was fun (I always enjoy a good literary quiz question, or playing spot the famous opening line), but something more was needed.

“In this time of closing in and closing down, reading was one of the few activities that was left to prisoners, something they could safely fill some of that endless time with. Prisoners know what lockdown means, even if the outside world didn’t really – until 23 March 2020 at any rate. Time goes slowly and the television isn’t always the escape that’s needed – especially in the early days when all the tv seemed to be about covid-19.

“So PRG decided to offer something else to participating prisons – the possibility of providing a choice of two book titles and then supplying 20 copies of whichever book a prison chose (the choice being either that of the librarian or the prison’s usual PRG volunteer). Slimming the choice of book titles down made it easier in some ways to select one and I guess there might have been a bit of a discount for bulk purchasing. Thus, across the whole prison estate there may have been literally hundreds of prisoners all reading the same book at more or less the same time.

“But, just like readers in the outside world, prison readers like to talk about a book they’ve just read too – especially if they’ve loved it, or maybe even if they’ve hated it! And occasionally if they’ve thought it was just “blah”, or even “meh!” So, PRG and its volunteers thought we should do the best we can to provide that opportunity. Sadly, Zoom or Teams weren’t really options for the prison, but we did find a way.

“It was rather laborious. With each title, Neil, Thameside’s affable and helpful librarian, gave out a double-sided sheet with a blurb for the book and a set of questions. PRG and their volunteers worked to devise these sheets, giving prisoners some food for thought and setting them off probing their own responses to the book. Then Neil collected in the sheets, scanned them and sent them to me. I then collated and summarised them, trying to analyse what the prisoners thought about each question. Sometimes there was total agreement, other times widely differing views. There were texts where, for example, some thought the mother was to blame (as usual), while another thought the sister should have stood up for her sibling; or perhaps poverty was the main reason for the character’s downfall, yet another thought it was just the guy’s weakness and lack of courage, and so on and so forth.

“And then I sent the summary sheets back to Neil. The final bit of the process would be Neil organising for the prisoners to receive these summaries and see what their fellow readers had to say, and discover whether their view was the majority or minority one. Or perhaps, the final stage should be us hearing back from the prisoners as to whether they had found the summaries interesting and thought-provoking? That is what I’d like to know! Yes, these book clubs are remote ones, and giving and getting feedback is a challenge. But somehow, we are keeping going with our guiding principle of sharing the love of reading, and making that still possible, even behind bars.”

Neil Barclay, HMP Thameside’s Librarian, commented on the good work the remote book club has done along with commending the efforts of the PRG volunteers:

“It was heartening to see so many inmates eager to engage in the remote book clubs in the absence of real-life sessions. PRG volunteer Maggie Gallagher does a fantastic job of collating their feedback responses into a report for everyone to read. Similarly, the charity PRG generously provide copies of each book being discussed to each participant which become the prisoner’s to keep. I feel ownership plays an important part of rehabilitation and the work PRG does in offering these books as well as creating the feedback sheets for inmates to complete and just their enthusiasm for reading in prisons in general is something to be commended. We are very proud to be working with them.”