“Putting libraries at the heart of the prison”

Morning and Evening Prayer Book for People in Prison

Speech Nick Poole gave on 9 June 2017 at a Prison Reading Groups event where he talked about the vital role libraries play in our prison system.

We’ve been asked to talk about putting libraries at the heart of a prison. Hearts are messy, mechanical things, and I don’t see prison libraries that way. I see the prison library as the soul of the prison – a place of respite and humanity and learning in the broadest sense. I think it has a very special place in prison life. 

I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of prison libraries in the past year. I say fortunate because I think they’re quite magical places. I have heard inmates say, ‘for the 20 minutes a week I’m in the prison library, I’m not in prison’. They are transported to a different place, a place without walls.

One library I visited in a Cat B prison recently – you would swear you were in any public library, anywhere in the country. Quality books, activities like the Summer Reading Challenge, DVD’s and games, nice furniture, windows. 

In the outside world, a library has 3 functions – as a place of literacy, a place of learning and a safe civic space to come together outside the normal world of conflict and argument. And in my experience, it’s exactly the same in a prison library. 

And I have seen first-hand the impact a prison library has on inmates. I’ve seen big lads, who’ve done bad things, engrossed in a child’s book, tracing the words with their fingers, sounding out the letters. And not doing it alone – being encouraged by their peers. 

And you know that inside those big lads are little lads and nobody ever sat on the end of their bed and read them a book.

I’ve been involved in reading groups where a Seamus Heaney poem was the jumping off point for a discussion about relationships with our dad, and our dad’s relationships with theirs. Listened as an inmate who struggled with social interaction explained the link between a pen, a ploughshare and a rifle as the tools of each generation in the poem.

I’ve met inmates who work in the library and who have gained skills and pride and confidence which they will carry with them into the outside world. 

I’ve also seen what happens when you shut a prison library through lack of staff. I’ve met inmates desperate because they can’t finish their OU course, who get stuck in time. Frustrated because the librarian was helping them write a book which might be a bestseller one day. 

And we know that 30% of prisoners struggle with level 1 literacy. And I ask myself, if you’re released with £40 and a bag of washing, and you lack basic skills, which direction can you go in other than back to the life you had before?

The good thing about the prison library is that they are in the Prison Guidelines. That’s a clearer statement of requirement than exists for public libraries in the outside world. The Prison Rules (1999) state that, 

“A library shall be provided in every prison and, subject to any directions of the Secretary of State, every prisoner shall be allowed to have library books and to exchange them.”

“In line with Prison Rules, all prisoners must be allowed access to library books.   The frequency of access will fit establishment need, but library visits should be of a minimum 30 minutes’ duration and as often as is practical.”

These are important rules, and they set an important principle. However, we know that many prisons around the UK struggle to meet this basic requirement. Whether its the reality of moving groups of inmates between the cells and the library, the lack of prison staff or the difficulty of recruiting librarians into the sector – there are real challenges in meeting this expectation. 

As the UK’s library and information association, I think there are three things we would like to do more of in order to help: 

  1. We would like to raise awareness of the brilliant, transformative work that goes on in the prison library in the outside world. Work which the staff involved are often not able to talk about themselves;
  2. We would like to look at the difficulty of recruiting professional librarians into prisons and whether there are ways in which we can promote a career in prison libraries – particularly since there are jobs;
  3. We would like to find some way of sharing the excitement about prison libraries with Governors - several of whom that I have met have been genuine champions for the prison library and its role in prison life – and ensuring that when the cuts continue to bite, they try and protect the library.

We have an active and really inspiring Prison Libraries Group as part of CILIP and I am grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to visit some of their workplaces. 

I also know how important events and activities are in the prison library. Whether long-term or short-term, inmates (like all library users) need to be engaged through an active and creative programme, including Prison Reading Groups and events such as the 6 Book Challenge, now Reading Ahead

So that’s my answer. I think the library is the soul of the prison rather than its heart. A different kind of place inside the library which has a transformative and powerful impact on everyone who uses it.