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Prison book club is breaking down barriers

8 January 2018

Group of women sitting on a sofa reading books

Prisoners are being given a chance to turn their lives around thanks to a unique book club run by Essex Libraries at Chelmsford prison.

The National Literacy Trust’s Books Unlocked project enables prisoners, community book groups and school students to connect through books by reading and discussing Man Booker-Prize shortlisted titles for their own enjoyment.

It aims to break down barriers so young offenders and prisoners feel part of the wider community, build confidence and self-esteem, improve reading skills and ultimately reduce reoffending. 

Listening to the opinions of others in a book group setting promotes tolerance and empathy, prompting prisoners to reflect on their own situation and make them less likely to commit future crimes. 

At HMP/YOI Chelmsford, where Essex Libraries run the prison library service, prisoners received copies of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, a story about two hired assassins during the California Gold Rush.

Rectory Readers, a book club in Great Oakley, and a group of year 11 students from St Helena School in Colchester, read the same book before giving their thoughts and reviews to library staff to share with prisoners.

Two members of Rectory Readers then joined a discussion at the prison, which gave prisoners a rare chance to interact with the outside world, whilst also reflecting on their own crimes.

Cllr Susan Barker, cabinet member responsible for libraries, said: “I visited Chelmsford Prison recently to see first-hand how the library is making a real difference in rehabilitating offenders.

“The library is a haven of calm and inspiration in an extremely challenging environment. Together with projects like Books Unlocked it is helping to improve reading and writing skills, which are so vital if these men are to play a positive part in our society upon their release.”

One prisoner said: “I think it’s a very positive and educational way for prisoners to interact with the outside world. Sharing opinions and thoughts with others has been unique and irreplaceable.”