Our August blog is written by Awards Secretary, Paula Johnson.
Nicola Solomon and I spent the best part of one of July’s spectacularly steamy days in and around the library at Thameside Prison, in South East London. It was a privilege. And it was transformative – an awkwardly ultimate sort of a word, portentous even, but it was the buzz-word on our recent visit – we heard it from the prison library staff, we heard it from the inmates themselves, and can really say that we felt it for ourselves.
Against the background of the current debate about prisoners’ access to books and reading time, I am aware that one prison library with which I have direct contact, H M Prison Wandsworth, is very interested in books and reading. With its two libraries, there is a constant thirst for new material. This connection has been built up over recent years and additional books at the Society, left over from awards and prizes for instance, are piled into the back of my car and make the journey to the prison where, high security notwithstanding, they receive a warm welcome from the prison librarian and staff.
Wandsworth, London’s largest prison, is mainly housed in older buildings, whereas HMP Thameside is a category B prison, sited in modern-ish light, brick buildings within an open, almost garden setting. Admittedly it was a bright, sunny day, but these buildings benefit from large windows, looking out over the football pitch, and to the outside world. That care with design is more than evident in the prison library, which is led by the capable and compelling Librarian and Learning Skills Lead, Neil Barclay, who was the genius behind the Library Initiatives Celebration event at Thameside we attended.
A large party of around thirty or so – among us academics, book trade representatives, and novelist Rachel Billington, who has worked with insidetime, the national newspaper for prisoners, since its inception in 1990, writing a regular monthly column, mingled with regular users of the library. We encountered quiet enthusiasm and witnessed the satisfaction many of the inmates derive from acting as a library orderlies. It was evident from even brief conversations that to many, reading is a real solace and pleasure. One passionate reader told me how frustrating it was that the television supplied in his shared cell dominated the space, when he was dying for some quiet down time with his current book.
After hearing from prisoners who work in the library describe, vividly, various aspects of their time there: in particular the notable way in which readership overall in the prison has increased – with an escalating book-borrowing rate; initiatives like Booked! , HMP Thameside’s full colour monthly Library Newsletter, written and produced by the inmates and crammed with reviews and recommendations, which has rapidly become required reading throughout the prison – we were at last allowed into the library itself.
And it was a room that would be anyone’s refuge – shelf upon shelf of books, arranged and flagged up in subject order (no shelf too high, so that the space felt airy and welcoming); a bank of computers where different language courses are available; tables with newspapers. ‘The place where the magic happens’ as Neil Barclay put it. Prisoners were queuing to get in, as we left. This kind of enthusiasm and progress, belief in the power of literature and involvement with books, is fully supported by the staff at HMP Thameside, from the Director down. If you want proof of the power and influence a good read can exert, this prison is a very good place to start.
Oh and both Nicola and I are on the blacklist of idiots who walk in with mobile phones – we handed them in, of course, but if we do it again…