Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author to visit prison library

A collaborative reading project is helping to break down barriers between prisoners and their local community through shared reading.

The Oxfordshire County Council-run library service at HMP Huntercombe, a Category C men's prison near Henley, has teamed up with the National Literacy Trust and Soha Housing association to create a more inclusive book club.

The Breaking Barriers Book Club has seen a group of Soha Housing staff and residents join the prison library reading group to discuss Pigeon English, a novel by the 2011 Man Booker prize shortlisted author Stephen Kelman.

Twenty prisoners and 10 Soha staff and residents have been taking part in the project, meeting at the prison to share thoughts on the book with one another in an effort to build bridges between the different groups.

Oxfordshire County Council provides library facilities at HMP Huntercombe and HMP Bullingdon under service level agreements with Her Majesty's Prison Service. This is a costed service so is not delivered to the detriment of public library service budgets.

Neelam Rutti, Oxfordshire County Council Library Manager at HMP Huntercombe, said: “I see it as my role as Library Manager to help promote literacy and support the rehabilitative culture in the prison.

"When prisoners voiced concerns about not feeling part of the community, I was able to facilitate links with the local housing association and set up this reading group. The interaction between the groups has helped dispel some of the myths around prison life and enabled the prisoners to feel more comfortable with the wider community’s views. This has been extremely well received as a very worthwhile initiative that highlights the similarities between people rather than the differences.”

Pigeon English is one of the books given to prisoners throughout England and Wales for free as part of the National Literacy Trust’s Books Unlocked programme. Funded by the Booker Prize Foundation, Books Unlocked helps prisoners discover a new world of literature by giving them free copies of Man Booker Prize-shortlisted books, serialising audiobooks of the titles on National Prison Radio and facilitating author visits to prison reading groups.

On July 25, the group will hold its last reading session, when Mr Kelman, is expected to read from Pigeon English and answer questions about the book and his work as an author.

Stephen Kelman said: “Working with the Books Unlocked programme has been a huge privilege for me, allowing me to witness first-hand the restorative role literature can play in the prison environment. 

"The Breaking Barriers Book Club is another innovative project of which I’m proud to be a part, and I’m really looking forward to meeting all the participants and discussing their reactions to my book.”

Paul Crossey, Deputy Governor at HMP Huntercombe, said: “As all of our men here will be released at some point, it is important that we do everything we can to help them avoid reoffending. When members of the community, prison staff and prisoners come together in the library to talk about books and our common characteristics, it breaks down barriers and gives the men hope that they can turn away from a life of crime.”

Jude McCaffrey, Head of Housing at Soha said: “Soha’s purpose is to ensure that people in need can access affordable housing. We often work with people who feel socially excluded such as prison leavers. The Breaking Barriers Book Club has helped Soha staff see the people behind the label and that there is more that unites us than divides us.”