Once a week, a small group of inmates gathers in the day centre room at London’s Pentonville Prison to read aloud together. Some do so falteringly, others with more confidence – but all have accepted a challenge to read six books in a year, or before they leave prison.
It might not seem of much consequence, but more and more prison service professionals are beginning to believe that what happens in this room could be vital to the inmates’ chances of securing a job – and not re-offending – when they return to civilian life.
Maurice, aged 46, who is on remand awaiting trial, describes the reading sessions as “therapeutic”. “It’s an escape from things and takes you out of yourself,” he said. “You get absorbed in a book. I felt isolated in my cell, and mental health issues can kick in. I was encouraged to come to the day centre as a distraction.”
The prison reading scheme is part of the Quick Reads project, which has signed up authors including Andy McNab, Minette Walters and Kathy Lette to pen simple short stories to help adults with literacy problems learn to read.
“Forty-eight per cent of people in prison have low literacy levels,” said Cathy Rentzenbrink, director of Quick Reads. “The likelihood of reoffending is so vastly reduced if they have skills like reading when they leave prison.”
At Pentonville, 459 inmates were signed up to the scheme this year – the prison holds 1,200 – and 159 have read their six books to date.
Andy McNab, the novelist and former SAS operative, has visited the prison to talk to the inmates, recalling how when he joined the army he was told: “You’re not thick – you’re just not really educated.” McNab is the most popular author in the men’s prison – one book he has written for Quick Reads tells of his own experience as an illiterate soldier learning to read when he joined up.
Ms Rentzenbrink described his visit as “the most profoundly moving experience from an emotional point of view that I’ve ever been involved in.”
“It was inspirational,” she said. “He was talking to a roomful of prisoners and he told them: ‘Everyone f***s up once – it’s what you do next that really counts’.”
In their reviews of the books, McNab is a firm favourite among inmates. “I love any book by Andy McNab, as from start to finish you just can’t put the book down. The plot in this book was great right until the end,” one wrote.
Simeon, 25, who is in the second year of a six-year sentence for a drugs-related offence, worked as a mentor in a youth club before starting his sentence, and now helps other inmates learn to read.
“I was mentoring three people at one stage,” he said. “One was in the same case as me. I don’t think he’d have had the confidence to do it by himself.”