Prison book ban overturned

Wonderful news was announced at the end of last week as the ban on sending books to prisoners in England and Wales has been declared unlawful by the High Court.

Mr Justice Collins has removed the ban previously imposed earlier this year by the justice secretary Chris Grayling and has ordered the policy on what can be sent to prisoners to be amended, commenting that it was strange to treat books as a privilege when they may be essential to a prisoner’s self-development and rehabilitation.

The ban provoked an incredible reaction in opposition, leading to a petition and high-profile campaign garnering support from authors including Carol Ann Duffy, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, who commented after the reversal of the decision that he was glad that reading has been seen as “a right and not a privilege”.

The Reader Organisation is delighted to hear the news, given our work sharing reading in prisons and criminal justice settings across the UK. For hundreds of prisoners each week, shared reading offers the chance to reflect, engaging with literature and connecting deeper to their own experiences.

“The connections and insights of a shared reading group are endless and some of those most in need of new connections and insights are prisoners. I myself have actually become more tolerant of people and value their opinions far more than I used to as I am constantly amazed by the depth of those insights which frequently resonate with me deeply.

I have benefited greatly from the emphasis upon great literature and have learnt more of what it is to be a human being, the role of emotions in myself and others, in fact the whole range of human experience in these finely crafted works than I have in half a dozen psychological ‘treatments’.” – A, a prisoner taking part in one of our regular shared reading group

Read more of A’s story in our Annual Report 2013/14

Writer and patron of The Reader Organisation Erwin James spoke on BBC Radio 4 following the overturning of the ban discussing the importance of reading in prison and in particular talking about the difference books have made to his life: you can hear the clip here. In Issue 54 of The Reader, he wrote an essay about how he became a reader whilst in prison and how one book in particular gave him hope for the future. In the light of the news, it makes for an even more powerful read.

Recently Lord Faulks QC, Minister of State for Civil Justice & Legal Policy, visited one of our shared reading groups at the Psychologically Informed Planned Environment (PIPEs) in HMP Send. Shared reading has been integrated as part of daily life in seven PIPEs around the country. After his visit, Lord Faulks lent his support to shared reading within criminal justice settings:

“The Reader Organisation performs a vital function in the delivery of the PIPE objectives by engaging prisoners with literature and poetry which is both enjoyable and beneficial for them. I was very impressed with the library facilities at HMP Send particularly with the accessibility to books in all genres.”

Great news just in time for Christmas for prisoners across the country to receive the gift of reading and we continue to look forward to delivering more shared reading sessions in criminal justice settings in 2015.

The Reader Organisation’s Annual Report 2013/14

peckhamFollowing a successful 2014 AGM last week – our second held at our new HQ, Calderstones Mansion HouseThe Reader Organisation’s Annual Report for 2013/14 is now available on our website to read and download.

Our latest Annual Report charts what has been the biggest period of growth and development for TRO, with more shared reading projects expanding across the UK. Highlights of the year include a significant boost to our community projects in South London thanks to the development of a 3 year project to establish more than 100 shared reading groups across the area which meet the needs of the ‘whole person’ – a health priority flagged up at our National Conference 2013 by Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health; an expansion of our North Wales project, which is crucially volunteer-led to help us reach some of the most remote parts of the UK; a Reader-in-Residence project which saw shared reading brought to the heart of a workplace across Merseyside, and ongoing work with our partners including Mersey Care, Liverpool Hope University and CRILS (Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society).

The report charts our work across a number of areas, including Health and Wellbeing, Dementia, Criminal Justice and Children and Young People, and also showcases the impact of shared reading in its most vital and human sense, as told through the words of some of our Readers from a variety of settings and places:

“I’ve experienced so many emotions; failure, success, fear, laughter, tension and escapism. Most of all, how enjoyable and magical reading can be.” – D, a shared Reader

“I… have learnt more of what it is to be a human being, the role of emotions in myself and others, in fact
the whole range of human experience… than I have in half a dozen psychological “treatments” ” – group member in Criminal Justice setting

“New friendships have been formed, new horizons opened up and confidence has been boosted. The reading
revolution has started in Buckley Library!” – North Wales Project volunteer

In a year which has also seen us consolidate our work in a practical sense with support from Big Venture Challenge and Social Business Trust, it is a heartening achievement that the serious pleasure of serious reading is continuing to spread further from its strengthened roots.

The Reader Organisation’s Annual report 2013/14 can be downloaded or read on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/who-we-are/annual-report

 

 

‘It gives me a sense of worth again’ – A’s Reader Story

At The Reader Organisation, we’re opening up the wealth of emotional experience contained in great literature to people regardless of which life situation they currently find themselves in. Our weekly read-aloud, shared reading groups operate around the country in a variety of settings, connecting people closer to books, stories and poems – and one another – with often very profound results.

Recently we received some feedback from one of our Readers attending a group in HMP Frankland, Durham, about their experience of shared reading.

A had been a keen reader, but found that with nobody to talk with about the things that he was reading that his enjoyment decreased. The act of reading, and rediscovering reading, was vital for A to maintain a sense of normal perspective about himself – something that he identifies as being hard to hold onto while in prison – and reconnect to a more positive mental outlook.

Saying that he was ‘struggling’ with life, A describes attending the shared reading group at the prison as being like ‘a cool drink of water on a hot day seemingly without end’. Though recognising the benefits of reading on an individual level, shared reading within a group appears to make a particular difference:

“If reading by oneself in isolation is inherently edifying, and I believe it to be so, then how much more so when you read with others of a like mind? The connections and insights of a shared reading group are endless and some of those most in need of new connections and insights are prisoners. I myself have actually become more tolerant of people and value their opinions far more than I used to as I am constantly amazed by the depth of those insights which frequently resonate with me deeply.”
The group has read a wide range of literature, from Silas Marner to Frankenstein, with A taking particular hold of the emotional depth of such works: “[I] have learnt more of what it is to be a human being.” Since attending the group, A says that his skills of expression have improved, as well as his confidence, which had been lacking for the majority of his life.
And yet it is not just within himself that A sees the most benefit – the experience of reading and discussing great literature has had an impact on others too:
“I have seen my friends reading and then writing poetry in their own time who before attending the group had not the faintest idea about it nor the inclination to find out.
It connects us, prisoners, lifers in a high security prison, with the beauty that we always suspected was beneath the concrete and razor wire or dimly remembered in another life. “
You can read A’s powerful Reader Story in full on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/reader-stories/as-reader-story,-hmp-frankland
Shared reading projects in the Criminal Justice sector offers opportunities for self-reflection and attitudes to be transformed, and can assist in reducing reoffending. Discover more, including our work in the North East, on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice

Introducing…The Reader Magazine blog!

reader-54-web-coverWhen you’ve read your trusty copy of The Reader magazine cover to cover, are you often thirsting for more literary goodness? Perhaps there’s a poem, short story or feature article that has got you enthused and you want to say more about it?

Well now you can get even more from between the pages as we’re happy to announce that The Reader has gone online with a brand new blog dedicated to bringing readers even closer to quality literature and the wealth of thinking behind it.

Of course you’ll still be able to enjoy the pleasures of ink on paper – Issue 54 is hot off the press and physical copies can be ordered from The Reader Organisation’s website as well as in a selection of bookshops around the UK, including Waterstones Liverpool One – but now if you’ve read something that’s moved, vexed or roused you or you’re simply keen for more of the same, just a few clicks and it will all be at your fingertips.

A spirit of sharing has always been at the heart of The Reader since its first publication in 1997, and the blog gives the perfect opportunity to take that idea further. Online you’ll find a range of additional articles and features to enliven the print version of the magazine with further discussion and audio, though it is intended that the content will also stand alone for readers who prefer their reading in pixels.

The Reader blog is already brimming with topical content available for you to read at your leisure, and with a particular focus on the current hot issue of reading in prisons. Author and TRO patron Erwin James‘s powerful essay detailing the profound effect a book on French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus had on the state of his mind during his time in prison is available in full – and already gaining a remarkable response from readers online:

An amazing journey of hope, the strength of the human spirit and commitment to personal change.

Following Erwin’s story – and the many other stories that say that reading really does make a difference to prisoners – contributors from Issue 54 including Shauneen Lambe, Sean Elliot and Margaret Drabble recommend the books they would give to a friend in prison exclusively for The Reader blog.

The blog is also where we’ll be building up an archive of poetry readings, our first additions coming from poet and regular Reader contributor Julie-ann Rowell reading two selections from her work.

So much to get you reading already, all to be found on www.thereadermagazine.co.uk

Don’t forget that you can delve into The Reader archives by purchasing your vintage copies from the website, as well as subscribing for your regular dose of Readerly goodness: www.thereader.org.uk/magazine

 

Giving books in Wormwood Scrubs

The first Book Room at Wormwood Scrubs, set up by Give A Book
The first Book Room at Wormwood Scrubs, set up by Give A Book

The debate on books in prisons is still a burning issue since months after the announcement of rules to ban prisoners from receiving books through the post. A petition to get the ban overturned – supported by The Reader Organisation – has received over 28,000 signatures, and there have been various campaigns, including the very active #booksforprisoners hashtag on Twitter which highlights the reformative power of literature.

Our work sharing reading in prisons and other criminal justice settings around the UK demonstrates how literature can have a massive impact on the lives of prisoners and ex-offenders. The sharing of personal experiences through books offers opportunities for prison reform, rehabilitation and prevention of further crime, as well as improving health and wellbeing, increasing confidence and providing the chance for self-reflection. Simply put, our work with people such as N shows what effect reading has on opening up prisoners’ lives outside of their cells:

“You hear a lot of chat about people’s crimes in this place.  In this room we’re talking about other things, so many other things.  And we’re listening to each other.  I’ve learned that we’re all essentially the same.”

(Read N’s story in full on our website)

Our friends from Give A Book, who facilitate the gifting of books to charities, organisations and people who need them the most, have recently set up a new Book Room in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. The room is designed to support the existing library within the prison, encouraging prisoners to read recreationally in an informal setting.

The Book Room has proved immensely popular since its opening, with an influx of donations of great literature from sources including Granta, English PEN and Cambridge Literary Festival. There has also been some great feedback from the prisoners on the wing, which you can read on the Give A Book blog.

There are plans to open a Book Room on all wings of the prison, and it’s a fantastic initiative which The Reader Organisation wholeheartedly supports. Congratulations to all at Give A Book for the success of the Book Room and best of luck for it continuing!

You’ll also find more about the subject of books in prisons in Issue 54 of The Reader magazine, which is out now. Writer and patron of The Reader Organisation Erwin James writes about how the power of a good book gave shape to a profound dream he had while he was in prison, and this issue’s interview is with campaigning barrister and director of Just for Kids Law Shauneen Lambe, who speaks about her work with prisoners on death row in Louisiana.

You can buy your copy of The Reader magazine in Waterstones Liverpool One and a range of other stockists around the UK, or online via our website, where you’ll also be able to purchase a year long subscription for the UK, abroad or institutions: http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine

“You hear a lot of chat about people’s crimes in this place.  In this room we’re talking about other things, so many other things.  And we’re listening to each other.  I’ve learned that we’re all essentially the same.” – See more at: http://www.thereader.org.uk/reader-stories/reader-stories-greater-manchester-probation-trust.aspx#sthash.HWubm8yT.dpu

“Reading has given me life”: Better with a Book

Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)
Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)

Yesterday delegates, readers and The Reader Organisation staff descended on The British Library Conference Centre in London, awaiting a day of stimulating discussion and thought-provoking insights into the practice of shared reading for our fifth annual National Conference, Better with a Book. The sun was shining early, which was only a sign of the good things to come, and anticipation for the day started early with our #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter:

Off to ‘s national conference . Anticipating inspiration, ideas and some great poems.

Read. Share. Live. Inspire. Be inspired. Be well.

We welcomed delegates from a wide range of fields, including libraries and community development, education, therapy, law, nursing, and from across the country and beyond – even from as far away as Melbourne, showcasing the global reach that shared reading is beginning to have.

After a welcome from Founder and Director Dr Jane Davis thanking everyone for being advocates of reading for pleasure, the day started by asking whether young people are Better with a Book featuring an esteemed panel, Baroness Estelle Morris (Institute of Effective Education at the University of York), Dr Alice Sullivan (Director 1970 British Cohort Study, Institute of Education, University of London) and Simon Barber (Chief Executive at 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust). After reading from their favourite childhood books, Dr Sullivan presented the findings of an illuminating study which found that young people’s reading habits had more influence on their attainment than the level of their parents’ education. The matter of giving young people choice to explore reading in relation to their place in their world was a big talking point – Simon spoke of his experiences of running a group for young people in the mental health inpatient unit at 5 Boroughs, where they chose to read texts as eclectic as Black Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, and Estelle placed emphasis on reading as a social context for children and young people.

Great to be with a whole room of compassionate bookworms ‘s event

The most inspiring and incredibly moving part of the day came when we met some of our readers from shared reading groups in London and Merseyside who shared their personal experiences of the impact shared reading has had upon their lives, from giving them the confidence to live well as well as discover new skills (Jennifer went on to do Read to Lead training), find employment, appear on stage, and in the most fundamental and significant cases, provided them with the means to keep on living. Shared reading was described as a ‘lifesaver’ and the power of the testimonies was truly alive in the room:

Inspiring personal testimonies from readers. Life changing moments beautifully told

such transformation in people’s lives has happened through reading groups!

Incredibly moving, funny, raw stories from those attending groups with

It wasn’t just the effect on themselves that was brought to life – Jennifer spoke passionately about her work reading with people with dementia, and one woman in particular for whom shared reading has brought joy and a release to her life, so much so that it is a major point of her week:

“She’s in the poetry, and for one whole hour she’s happy.”

Seminars honing in on the topics of shared reading in PIPEs, research into the cultural significance of shared reading, examining the working model of shared reading for commissioners and the links between reading for pleasure and cognitive development gave much for us to think about before heading to our main afternoon sessions.

Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)
Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)

Lord Alan Howarth (Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Arts, Health and Wellbeing) chaired a panel discussion how reading in prisons can contribute to prison reform and how prisoners should be helped within the system and on return to the community. The complex topic was masterfully handled by Nick Benefield (previous Advisor on Personality Disorder at NHS England and Joint Head of the NHS Personality Disorder Programme), Lord David Ramsbotham (House of Lords member with a focus on penal reform and defence) and Megg Hewlett (Reader-in-Residence and PIPEs group leader in West London). Following the day’s emerging theme of shared reading ‘opening and unlocking’ individuals, Megg shared the story of a young woman within a criminal justice setting finding herself in the poem Bluebird by Charles Bukowski, and Lord Ramsbotham spoke of his belief in the importance of Readers-in-Residence to both the medical and educational needs of prisoners.

Our keynote speech came from writer, broadcaster and author Lord Melvyn Bragg, who spoke in-depth about the story behind his novel Grace and Mary, which came from his own experiences of his mother being diagnosed with dementia. He spoke about how it was important for him to help and discussed how literature linked with his lived experiences of the condition; in particular highlighting The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and King Lear (“Nothing will come of nothing.”). In discussion with Jane, Lord Bragg spoke about his life as a reader, saying that he couldn’t imagine his life without books and explaining in powerful words what reading has done for him.

“Reading has given me life…reading has given me several lives…reading has given me access to the possibility of a great number of lives.”

His words proved just as inspiring for our audience:

Melvyn Bragg ‘access to the paths not taken- that’s all in reading’. Amazing closing talk ‘s conference

A closing point from Jane which reminded us of the importance of finding ourselves in reading books from the ages rounded off a remarkable day which highlighted in real human terms the remarkable effects reading can have on so many different lives. ‘Inspirational’ was the word of the day from our #betterwithabook attendees, and it was a very fitting term indeed.

Better with a Book was featured on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking by Jules Evans from Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, University of London. Listen from around 38 min 20 secs in to hear about books that have helped guests through hard times and an exploration of our work and research: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0435bj1

Better with a Book: One week to go!

_O7J3781 There’s just one week to go until we head to the British Library Conference Centre in London for Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s National Conference 2014. Delegates from across the UK will be joining us for the day to explore the relationship between literature, mental health, education, increased social engagement, enhanced emotional development and improved quality of life, and it’s promising to be the most enriching Conference to date with a wonderful line-up of guest speakers on the bill.

Better with a Book will be examining how the practice of shared reading makes people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds feel fundamentally better – from young people reading for pleasure in schools to literature being a way in to people within a variety of secure settings. What is it about reading, and specifically reading aloud with other people, that creates such positive impacts upon our lives?

The day will begin with an introduction by TRO Founder and Director Jane Davis, leading on to a panel discussion with Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan. Amongst them they will be unravelling the relationship between reading, emotional wellbeing and educational attainment, following findings of a study by the Institute of Education – of which Dr Sullivan was a co-author – which found that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school in a range of subjects, including maths as well as spelling and vocabulary.

Also in the morning there’ll be the chance to Meet Our Readers as we talk to four of our regular shared reading group members from London and elsewhere around the country about how their lives have been improved by joining a group in a hospital or the community. They’ll be telling us more about their personal experiences of shared reading and the varied impacts literature has had upon them.

_O7J4023After lunch, there will be four Breakout sessions available to attend, including a discussion of how shared reading is working practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs), a panel of commissioners who will talk about what working with The Reader Organisation has brought to them and an examination of the latest ongoing research into the cultural value of shared reading by the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at University of Liverpool.

Reading in secure environments is a significant area of our work, and Lord Alan Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Nick Benefield, previous Joint Head of the NHS and National Offender Management Service Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, and Megg Hewlett, Reader-inResidence at West London Mental Health Trust, about shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments.

Rounding off the day, Jane will be in discussion with writer, author, broadcaster and former President of MIND Lord Melvyn Bragg who will talk about his life as a reader and his novel Grace and Mary, which is based on his experiences of living with a relative with dementia.

All this as well as a chance to experience shared reading firsthand in some special sessions – it’s going to be a truly stimulating day enjoying great literature and the positive effects it can bring.

There are still a last few places available to join us for Better with a Book – all the information on how to book can be found on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/events/conference

We look forward to seeing you in London!

Inside Time: Shared reading in HMP Gartree

The latest in our series of articles showcasing The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings as featured in Inside Time is from the Psychologically Informed Planned Environment (PIPE) unit in HMP Gartree in Leicestershire.

Nicola Bennison, Reader-in-Residence at HMP Gartree, discusses The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument by Anne Stevenson with the Bookchat group.

The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae
in the chain of the difficult spine.

Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to the minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.

Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No. No desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.

– Anne Stevenson, Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe Books, 2005) www.bloodaxebooks.com

We are a group of eleven today. I read the poem through, slowly.

Gawd. I’ve no idea what that’s all about. There’s a lot of long words,” says K. “It makes no sense to me.”

I agree about the words. We can talk about them. I read it again.

Does it make you think of anything, even if you don’t understand it?

K: “Is it, like, we’re looking at some ill person, there’s something wrong with him, like he’s disabled or something?”

What does anyone else think?

P: “Yeah that’s what I thought too.

What makes you think that?

Everyone scrutinises the text.

P points: “Here, I think it’s this, about difficult spine, sounds like it’s not right.”

Yes! And why would a spine be difficult ?

“It’s perhaps because it’s like, really complicated.”

“And fragile.”

Yes, I say, it makes you think of the way you have to hold a baby’s head up until it gets strong.

“No,” says G, “I think it’s about the perfection of the human body, how whatever we do, it makes no difference, it generally comes out perfect. It’s DNA!”

Go on…

“See here, where it saysNo desire or affection could have done / with practice what habit / has done perfectly. It’s, like, automatic – nothing to do with what we do!”

We mull over this.

H: “To me, it’s like being given a guided tour of a high performance car, you can see how beautifully it’s made, what it can do…”

Yes! And there are machine-like elements – the manipulating tendons, the chain…

We unscramble some of the big words together – capillaries and ganglia, infinitesimal. We savour the sound of some of the words – knucklebones, ossicles

And what about the spirit?

We discuss it for a while and decide that it could be either divine or human. G is sticking to his guns:

“Nah, it’s evolution, isn’t it! The miracle of evolution!”

But there is something ambiguous here about what sort of control we have – the body is already doing what the brain tells it to yet…

I read some of the lines again. Why would bones be blind? I wonder.

H: “When babies are born not all their bones are connected yet…”

G: “You know what I think, when the baby’s still in the womb, the bones aren’t all joined up but it’s like they join up as if by instinct, they find their way. Maybe that’s it, like they are swimming blindly.”

It’s a lovely image!

Someone reads out the lines about the lungs. K is still paying attention:

“That’s the miracle, I think –when a baby first comes out of the womb and it automatically breathes, fills its lungs [he mimes this] – because air, you can’t see it or taste it, it’s just… a miracle!”

We return to the text.

Those last lines still worry me, I say, and read them again.

“Yeah, there’s only one positive thing in there, isn’t there, love…”

But it’s time to go. The men are standing up, folding up their copies of the poem to read later, and ponder for themselves those last lines.

Our Criminal Justice team operate around the UK, bringing weekly shared reading groups to those in secure environments. Find out more about shared reading in prisons, PIPEs and Criminal Justice settings on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice

‘A ripple of triumph’: feeling Better with a Book in secure settings

Lord Howarth
Lord Alan Howarth will be speaking at Better with a Book, TRO’s fifth National Conference

Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s fifth annual National Conference, is coming to The British Library Conference Centre in London on Thursday 15th May, with booking now open. Join us and special guests including Lord Melvyn Bragg, Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan to explore how shared reading and literature can be utilised to improve mental health, stimulate emotional wellbeing and enhance quality of life.

Amongst the speakers at Better with a Book is Lord Alan Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and previous Minister for Schools and Higher Education (1989-1992) and Minister for the Arts (1998-2001). Lord Howarth previously spoke about The Reader Organisation and his experience attending shared reading groups at last year’s Culture, Health and Wellbeing Conference, in a speech about the creative power of the arts to make an impact on the health of individuals and communities.

After visiting one of our regular groups at Wormwood Scrubs, Lord Howarth corresponded with the group’s leader and practitioner Megg Hewlett, Reader-in-Residence at West London Mental Health Trust, to comment on the positive effects he found that shared reading had in the highly secure environment:

“I’m in no doubt that this particular experience of reading helps the participants to think anew about moral, personal and social issues through focusing calmly and attentively on the texts and relating to other people engaged collaboratively in the same activity.” – Lord Alan Howarth to Megg Hewlett, After the Visit, The Reader 53

A series of the correspondence between Lord Howarth and Megg appears in Issue 53 of The Reader magazine, alongside an interview with columnist and former prisoner Erwin James. In light of the recent news restricting the access that prisoners have to books, the piece indicates how shared reading of quality literature can offer bonding, a greater sense of self-awareness and a better understanding of a world outside of the self to prisoners and those residing in secure environments, factors which help to contribute to reducing reoffending. Lord Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Megg and Nick Benefield, previously Joint Head of the NHS and NOMS Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, about the effects of shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments as part of Better with a Book.

In their correspondence featuring in The Reader 53, Megg explains the challenges of reading within a secure environment to Lord Howarth, which include engaging often reluctant readers amongst other factors. Yet once they discover that reading can be enjoyable and uplifting, other significant benefits follow:

“For many I read with a book is as terrifying as climbing a vertical rockface with little equipment and no training. When they first come into the room the terror is often palpable – a being in its own right – and my job is to attend to that part of the person, settle it down, and help them find some joy in something that has only previously given pain or been of no interest. You’re looking for small indications but they mark big events. The most common comment I have in that group is ‘I didn’t think I’d like this but it’s not bad’. When I hear this I feel a tiny ripple of triumph.”

Hear Megg speak to Lord Howarth firsthand about the experiences of sharing reading in secure environments, and learn more about how shared reading works practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs) at Better with a Book.

Full day delegate places (including VAT, lunch and refreshments) cost £140. Booking is available online via Eventbrite or via cheque or invoice – full information on how to book using these payment methods is available on the Conference page of our website. For queries or more information, please contact Abigail on abigailleader@thereader.org.uk or call 0151 207 7221.

For all the latest news on the Conference, follow the #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter

Inside Time: The Send-Off in HMP Liverpool

Throughout the UK we are sharing reading in prisons and secure Criminal Justice settings, with the reading and discussion of great literature creating the opportunity for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour, improve their health, wellbeing and interaction and increase levels of self-confidence and self-reflection.

Each month highlights from shared reading sessions are featured in Inside Time, the national newspaper especially for prisoners in the UK, and we’ll be publishing the articles here on The Reader Online after they’ve been featured in the paper.

The latest article comes from Amanda Brown, who is in charge of the strategic development of our Criminal Justice projects, and her ‘Read and Relax’ group at HMP Liverpool. The group are discussing The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

– Wilfred Owen

K, T, W, M, L, D and P discuss this with me.  All listen while I read, after which there is silence.

“Troops going to war. Very poignant.” K sighs. “Old men make wars, young men fight them.”

M, a young man, stabs at the page and looks up.

“I can see them – on the trains.  Grimly gay – gay meant happy then. They had to go.  Didn’t want to go.”

“It’s the title that hits me – The Send-Off – it’s like a funeral,” says P. “all white with wreath and spray…”

“As men’s are, dead,” adds L.  He leans forward, animated.  “Why would they be getting onto a train if a siding shed?  They’re not alive!”

Others need to consider this.  D frowns.

“That’s interesting, what you’re saying,” says K.  “I hadn’t seen that.”

There is lively debate here.  D suggests lines of the poem which seem to contradict L.  Lee remains adamant.

“That’s the beauty of poetry,” he claims.  “You see one thing, I see something else.”

When they pause, W speaks quietly.

“If I didn’t know Wilfred Owen was writing in WW1, I’d have said it’s about the Jews being sent to concentration camps.  I can see that.”

We exclaim, then, about the possibilities of the poem, unknown by the writer, provided by history.

“Owen knew nothing about WW2.  We can’t read his poetry without knowing about it.”

“Makes me think about taking my granddad, who’d been in the war, to see Saving Private Ryan. That opening sequence – he said it was just like that.”

“Secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.” I repeat.  Then, all at once, everyone is speaking.

“They don’t know where they’ve going.  They’re young.  Leaving their homes, their wives and girlfriends.”

“That’s why the women gave them flowers.”

“’Don’t forget me!’ – that’s what the flowers mean.  That’s like my missus.  She sprayed my clothes with her perfume before I came here.”

“My ex-father-in-law was in the war.  He was from Scotland. He was shipped out of Liverpool and his sisters came all the way down to Liverpool to see him off.  They bought him flowers – he told me that.”

I reread the lines: Nor there if they yet mock what women meant/who gave them flowers and suggest that maybe the women’s message was ‘Look after yourself. Come back to me.’

“The wives won’t know where their men are – no-one knew,” says M.

“They don’t know where their letters are going.  They write, but then they hear nothing,” says T.

I wonder about the question in the poem: Shall they return to beatings of great bells/ In wild trainloads?

“Because they won’t be coming back,” says P.  “Most of them won’t.”

“Just a few, maybe,” adds D. “No parades.  No cheering.”

We discuss the scenes in Wootton Bassett – the silent respectful crowds.

“Creep back, silent, to still village wells,” reads L.  This is their spirits coming back!”

“I don’t see that,” says D.  “But I can understand where you get that from.”

“Reading like this – it’s like splintered glass,” says K.  “It’s spread out in so many different directions.”

“I think this poem is the easiest to understand of all the ones we’re read,” says D.

“It means something to all of us,” says K.  “We feel it.”

Discover more about shared reading in prisons and Criminal Justice settings on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice

Nick Benefield, former NHSE PD Advisor and Joint Head of NHSE/NOMS Offender PD Team, and Lord Alan Howarth, All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, will be discussing the effect of shared reading in secure mental health settings at Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s 2014 National Conference on Thursday 15th May at the British Library Conference Centre, London. Head to our website to discover how you can book your place: http://www.thereader.org.uk/events/conference