‘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

RISE: Erwin James in conversation with Jane Davis

Erwin-JamesRISE: Erwin James in conversation with Jane Davis
Monday 14th October, 6pm (FREE)
Ustinov College, Durham University, Howlands Farm, South Road, Durham DH1 3DE

Join Erwin James, Guardian journalist and former prisoner, at this special, in-conversation event with Founder and Director of The Reader Organisation Jane Davis, a fringe event of Durham Book Festival 2013 and The Reader Organisation’s Reading In Secure Environments (RISE) programme this October, in association with the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University.

Erwin will be talking about his life as a reader and a writer with Jane at this free event, where they’ll also be joined by two of The Reader Organisation’s Reader-in-Residences at criminal justice settings in Durham, Charlie Darby-Villis (HMP Low Newton) and Lynn Elsdon (HMP Frankland).

Erwin James began writing for The Guardian on criminal justice issues while a serving prisoner in 1998; to this day, he is a regular columnist and contributor. Two collections of his columns, A Life Inside, A Prisoner’s Notebook and The Home Stretch, From Prison to Parole, have been published. He credits his discovery and interest in reading and education while in prison with changing his life. As well as being a trustee for Prison Reform Trust and patron of charities including CREATE and Blue Sky, Erwin is also a patron for The Reader Organisation.
As a believer in the value of reading in prisons, Erwin has expressed his support for the RISE programme since its beginnings last year:
“I’m thrilled at the news of The Reader Organisation’s RISE programme. My first experience of reading as a shared experience happened when I was in prison and the poet Ken Smith came in to talk to a group of us about his work. I was ten years into a life sentence and was still trying to find my way. Ken invited us to read some of his poems and extracts from one of his books. We were all intensely inhibited at first, defensiveness being the default position to survive on a prison landing. None of us had ever done anything like it. But in the library that day Ken made us feel safe enough to let our defences down, and to engage with him and each other as the real people we were deep inside. The humanising impact of Ken’s visit lasted long after he left us. He probably never knew it but in the two hours he gave us he managed to remind us that though we were prisoners, we were people first – and that we had some value. The potential for RISE, I believe, is massive.”
Erwin also spoke about RISE, The Reader Organisation and his own experiences of reading in prison in one of his recent posts for The Guardian Books Blog.
All are welcome to attend this free and special event, which promises to be a deeply interesting evening.
For more information on Durham Book Festival 2013, see their website.