HR Manager Sarah Wheatley: On Attending a Prison Reading Group

As part of our Creative Responsibility strategy, we provide Prison Reading Groups with ten sets of Penguin Random House books every month, enabling hundreds of prisoners to own, discuss and fall in love with books.

These reading groups are a chance for prisoners to get out of their cell and step outside their own lives. We all know that books can help us to understand other points of view and to escape from the everyday, and these things are more important than ever in prisons.

Several Penguin Random House staff have attended reading groups at Wandsworth prison, to better understand the work that Prison Reading Groups are doing.

Here is Sarah Wheatley’s account of her visit, reading Down and Out in Paris and London.

I’d never been to a reading group, let alone a prison, and so I had no idea what to expect.

I was met at the gates of Wandsworth Prison by Sarah Turvey, a Lecturer from the University of Roehampton who runs Prison Reading Groups. With Sarah was another volunteer who read about the organisation in a Guardian article – he looked pretty nervous.

Upon entering HMP Wandsworth you see all of the stereotypical sights and sounds you would expect; a dark imposing building with long fluorescently-lit corridors and metal spiral staircases, all leading to a central atrium. Everything echoes and so there’s a constant background noise of clanking metal doors, footsteps and voices from the wings. I find out from Sarah that each wing is divided according to the category of prisoner and type of offence, ranging from ones that are allocated to prisoners who are due for release or transfer, to those held for individuals considered to be more vulnerable to threat or danger.

Each of the men who will be joining us for the reading group is accompanied into the main atrium by one of the prison wardens; everyone is friendly, introduces themselves and chatting whilst we head up to the library. When we get there I can immediately see how such a place would be a sanctuary to someone in this environment; the library is set back from the main atrium and so is much quieter– it feels more like a classroom.

The book is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Sarah leads the discussion and we take turns to share our thoughts on the book. Sarah also has a set of Little Black Classics, which she spreads on the floor for anyone to take. The other volunteer seems to have relaxed a bit; he’s started to offer suggestions and recommendations on which of the Classics to read and is chatting with the group about the types of books that interest them.

For some in the group, English is a second language and so the men offer support and encouragement with the text, for others it’s a chance to debate Orwell’s ideas, and for some the session seems to be a chance to share life experiences from inside and outside of prison. Whatever the reason for attending, it was inspiring to see how engaged everyone was in the discussion; the hour flew by and could easily have gone on for much longer.

For me personally, attending a prison reading group definitely challenged any preconceived ideas I may have had about someone who is in prison, the warden who was in our group also got involved in the discussion, and planned to read the book afterwards. On the way out he explained to me how essential the group is to the prisoner’s wellbeing and how much the inmates look forward to the monthly session.

Overall the session was a great reminder of the impact that books can have, both as a source of learning and understanding but also as a way to share a common interests and ideas.

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