Arifa Akbar: Books help inmates to turn the page

The Week in Books

Martina Cole is big in jails, I'm told. She never fails to draw a crowd at prison readings. I know this because I recently went to a one-day conference on reading in prisons. Everyone acknowledged the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling's restriction on books for prisoners was no good thing, but that wasn't why they were there. It was meant as a day to reflect on what inmates read and how books impact on those we lock up.

The conference, organised by two academics – Sarah Turvey and Jenny Hartley – who set up Prison Reading Groups in 1999, was revelatory for someone who has little or no insight into prison life. Let's put aside the more iniquitous aspects – that some inmates are allocated a 20-minute library trip a month, that there can be a six-month wait for a book – and focus on the happier stuff. Former inmates stood up to give startling speeches on the vital, transformative role that books played in their confinement, each speaker more eloquent, more well-read, than most of us might imagine.

There are prison reading groups all over Britain, I discovered, and some pulled in 25 readers per session. Imagine that – 25 men sitting in a circle, talking about Raymond Carver or Robert Galbraith. The most popular books in prison reading groups were predictable – Franz Kafta's The Trial and Animal Farm for the debates sparked – but there were many that we on the outside have loved as much: A Street Cat Named Bob, a redemptive first-person account of a homeless man's friendship with a stray cat; The Hunger Games, Gone Girl and Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a Man Booker-shortlisted story of two Gold Rush brothers.

There were also reports on the open-mindedness of "emergent" readers – men and women who had learned to read inside prison. This group was receptive in ways older readers may no longer be; the men who read – and enjoyed – chick-lit for example, because they had not learned to follow the narrow set of rules that decided these books appeal only to a certain kind of woman.

One prison librarian spoke of her group's love of magazines – Private Eye and New Scientist mainly, because they wanted material far removed from that of crime or punishment, even if that meant reading abstruse articles on molecular cell structures.

Many vouched for the popularity behind bars of crime fiction such as Cole's, but was this fiction replicating the worlds that the prisoners knew and recognised, and in doing so, was criminality being sanctioned, however tacitly? Should prisoners be steered towards books that dealt with other topics, someone wondered aloud. There was an impasse, and in that silence, I wondered whether this wouldn't be tantamount to a policing of the mind and the imagination, which would prove pointless? Reading fiction as a means of moral instruction – it's just not what fiction is about. Anyway, the concern over Cole was undercut by a librarian who pointed out that John Hegley, the quirky poet who pokes gentle fun at himself, pulls in at least as big a crowd when he reads in prisons.

As they talked, I began to understand that the kind of books we enjoy on the outside are the same ones that are read and loved on the inside. Of course prisoners like crime fiction – it is among the most popular genres for us non-inmates too. On every chair in the conference room was a blank postcard which asked each of us to recommend a book to a prisoner. What would you suggest?

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?