‘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

The Reader Organisation in Inside Time: An inside view of shared reading

inside timeThe Reader Organisation’s activity in Criminal Justice settings is expanding all the time, with regular shared reading groups being delivered in prisons, secure hospitals and offenders institutes throughout the UK each week providing opportunities to reform, rehabilitate and reduce reoffending through the reading of great literature in a safe environment. Not only does the use of shared reading in secure environments create a foundation for a collaborative approach to reducing criminal behaviour, it allows the space for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour through a medium that has a direct personal impact as well as helping to contribute to stronger and safer societies in the long run.

Our work sharing reading within Criminal Justice settings is highlighted in Inside Time, the national monthly newspaper for prisoners in the UK. Inside Time creates a ‘voice’ for its readership – currently standing at an estimated 50,000 – providing articles and comments that seek to be informative, interesting and entertaining, and a key link to the outside world for its readers as well as connecting them with their family and friends. Amongst its contributions is cultural content including  a regular poetry slot, which has produced 5 volumes of the Inside Poetry publication.

Each month in the paper, a member of TRO’s Criminal Justice team provide an insight into a shared reading group session that has taken place through a poem or extract from a short story and a snapshot of the discussion that has accompanied the piece of literature. Always interesting and often revealing, the columns show how vital great literature is as a sounding board, connector between people, thoughts and emotions – and in many situations, as a lifeline.

Here on The Reader Online we’ll be regularly featuring the TRO Inside Time articles on a monthly basis, bringing you our latest column hot off the press and giving you a closer view of shared reading in secure settings. To begin the feature, we’re visiting a piece from the archives, originally published in September 2013. Wigan Project Worker Val Hannan takes us into a session at her group in Hindley YOI (funded by Greater Manchester West Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust), where the group shared the poem Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye.

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.

—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

– Reprinted from Tender Spot: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) by Naomi Shihab Nye, with kind permission of the poet

After I’ve read, the group take turns reading a stanza each. We begin with the epigraph: ‘We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.’

‘It’s strange,’ says C, ‘intriguing’.

‘It’s basically saying that everyone’s going to die’ says T.

C continues: ‘Some of us are alive but some of us are dead and we’re all going down the same path – we’re alive but we’re all dying.’

Suddenly F repeats the last stanza: ‘‘I who did not die, who am still living…/clenching and opening one small hand’ – This is me. It’s about me. It’s how I feel. I look at my hand – I always do that.’ F holds his fist up. ‘What’s that on my hand? Have I got blood on my hand? These thoughts are always at the back of my head.’

Lady Macbeth’s anguish is vivid in my mind.

‘It wasn’t premeditated,” offers T, seeking to comfort. Others nod, faces showing sympathy.

F says he is fine; he wants to continue.

We look at the first stanza.

‘What could the drum be?’ I ask.

‘It’s his pulse or heart beat getting slower,’ says T.

‘The narrator is only seven at this point – what about that?’

‘He’s getting scared and getting further away from home – going somewhere he doesn’t know,’ says C.

‘It could be about fate,’ says T. ‘He’s leaving his soul or one life behind.’

I ask about the image used to describe how the person felt: ‘My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.’

‘When I first came down to jail, I felt like that,’ says M. ‘My stomach had gone, I was only 12.’

I ask about the lines: ‘When you can no longer make a fist’?

‘This is when you can’t move, when you don’t have any strength.’

‘It makes me think of when you’re in your cell,’ says, C, ‘and you want to get out and you pound the bed and walls in anger and you can’t do anything and then you just get really weak and end up crying with the anger.’

They all agree with this and talk about how they often feel there is no release for their pent-up anger and frustration.

I ask about the image of the journey and why the ‘backseat’?

‘It could be the journey of life,’ says T.

‘It’s life as a car journey,’ says M.

‘But why the backseat?’

‘The back is in the past. The front seat is moving forward but you’re in the back seat of life when you don’t know what’s going to happen,’ says C.

‘What about borders – what could they be?’

‘It could be death – the border between life and death,’ says T.

‘Past and future,’ says M. ‘Childhood to being an adult.’

We focus on the final image: ‘clenching and opening one small hand.’

‘It’s your pulse, a heartbeat,’ says M.

‘It’s like stress,’ says F, ‘when you have to keep opening and closing your hand. I do it all the time.’

We discuss how our thoughts control the way we feel and conclude the worst prison is not a physical one, but the one we make for ourselves in our own mind.

You can find Inside Time on the web here: http://www.insidetime.org/index

Find out more about The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings, alongside Reader Stories from readers in various secure settings, on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice