Thursday 25 July 2019

June Talk: Prison Libraries, HMP Thameside

The CLG is a group that can bring us into very different worlds that are a step away from the academic world many of us work in. We were very lucky to have a group come to us to tell us about the world of Prison Libraries from both sides.

Neil Barclay is the civilian librarian working at HMP Thameside in South London and he kicked off the evening with a wonderful introduction as to the way his library works, what it does and the whole range of services and events that they offer.

Under his leadership the Library has doubled it's lending numbers since 2013 and has 7000 titles for 1230 prisoners. Prisoners work in the Library in order to help with their return to work upon leaving as you might expect but the range of schemes is immense. Literacy skills, prison mentoring, art therapy every 2 weeks, drama and scriptwriting, book club, street poetry, film clubs, Library magazine
(Booked) and a number of visits from a variety of well known authors that has brought a lot of attention, support and funding for the work he
and the prisoners do at Thameside. It's not all about money but the organisations supportive management as well. Hearing everything that happens in his library you really go get the level of effort and dedication Neil has put into his work.

And this was totally backed up by the kind words of the other speakers that followed Neils talk.

From Left to Right
Graham, Matt, Simon and Neil

Simon Ramnet told us that being locked up is bad enough but it is psychologically drastic and he told us about two other prisoners who never came
out of their cells once they were unlocked. Just stayed inside. If you don't open your doors there is something wrong there.

As an orderly Simon had more freedom and was able to take books around to people. One of the prisoners who never came out slowly started to be interested when he heard speaker 2 had books. Over the next few weeks this prisoner opened his door and became visible. The other prisoner never opened his door and never came out. Until his body was brought out.Books are not a silver bullet but someone staying inside their cell only have their internal thoughts.

"A book is a window to the outside world, when you have one you are controlling a passage to a world and better things and dreams, bruisers
crying as they've managed to write a story to their kids, the excitement of reading our own stories and poetry"

Matt Foster-Smith started by saying "Neil saved my life too".
Prisons are dehumanising places, no normal clothes, grey drab tracksuits. Working in the prison library then going back to your cell and watching Shawshank Redemption is irony.

It is a private prison and the library is the same so they have their own budget and as such are very different entities to state funded prisons. Thameside's library is in a new building which is in the centre of the prison and acts as a hub with people going through it to other things. 

And simple things like it snowing and staff can't get in means that prisoners don't get let out of their cells. They get given several days food at once and left on their own in the cells and having your head in a book is the way to escape those situations.

Prisoners have a right to access to library books not libraries which can have a massive difference where you can end up with just a line of
books in an understaffed library.

A prison is a closed economy as it only has what is there to use, books are often used for trading so they do go missing. But in some prisons the only books you will have access to as a prisoner is the bible in the chapel.

You needed to show compassion and empathy to prisoners as we are all one mistake from being in the same situation. And Neil's contribution to a lasting rehabilitation  through caring where they go from now not the weight of their past activities.

From Left to Right
Matt, Simon, Neil and Graham

Graham Coster is not an ex-prisoner, he is someone who volunteers running the reading group for the last 5 years. There are 3 groups a month and they have the same system as any reading group you or I might go to, without the wine.
He works for a non-profit organisation that runs groups in about 50 prisons (there are 120 prisons in the UK, 14 of which are private).

They cater for readers of all levels but do need to include everyone  to give people a voice and time to express their opinions and need a peaceful and orderly environment in which to show those opinions. It encourages an empathy with your fellow man and gives you the chance to learn of other people's experiences. Each member of the group gets to keep the book and so build up their own library and the books become a physical part of their lives.

Getting books sent to the Library is hard depending on security and the way the prisons are run. Some prisons will basically just accept something for you but just go into your property box for when you leave. If a book is sent in it needs to come from Waterstones, if it comes from Amazon it will just be turned back. Checking packages sent into the prison requires staff time so can easily take a very long time if it happens at all.There is a list of banned items provided by the government but often it is at the discretion of the governor, examples of banned books are 48 Rules of Power and books on hypnotism. Also books can be restricted for specific prisoners if they are connected to the crimes they committed. 

We were given a wonderful insight into the world of HMP Thameside from a librarian, a volunteer and two ex-prisoners who really gave us a very
detailed view of what the Library means to all of them from their different points of view.

Many thanks to all our speakers.

Thank you to Kevin Symonds for this write up.