Books behind bars: Does it matter what prisoners read?

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that ‘the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’  In our next public event, we’ll be thinking about what prisoners in the UK read – and whether the books on offer in prison libraries can make a difference to a life behind bars.

We’re going to start this blog with a quiz question: Can you tell which of the excerpts below belongs to a Booker-winning novel and which is taken from an urban fiction series that is the most popular amongst the UK’s prison population?

Excerpt #1 

“Everything will be fine,” Polo assured them. He stepped out of the car first and held out his hand for Taryn, who graciously accepted. He put his hand on the small of her back and led her through the crowd of onlookers, and her children followed closely behind. They were all surrounded by so many bodyguards, one would have thought that Barack Obama was entering the building.  

Excerpt #2

“I’ve got my eyes on you,” he said, sliding into his car. “The Dum Dum Donuts is all I have left.  I will not let you fuck my shit up.” Two goodbye beeps of his horn and he was gone. Swooping his Benz down El Cielo Boulevard, reaching Mach speed as he flew past Cuz, whose slow-footed strut was unmistakable even from a distance.  It doesn’t happen often, but once in a Crip blue moon, a member of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals says something ingenious like “black Chinese restaurants” and “pussy.”

If you want to find out which is which – and test your judgement of ‘literary’ taste with an interactive quiz, you’re invited to join the Big Book Review’s Perspectives from Prison event for the Being Human Festival on 11th of November.  

Prison libraries can have a huge impact.  They make a difference to the outcomes and rehabilitation for prisoners and, ultimately, to society as a whole. Evidence suggests that participation in prison education reduces reoffending and increases P45 employment.  Libraries can also raise functional, emotional and emotional literacy whilst having a beneficial impact on mental health: reading for pleasure is a means to reduce stress. (See Bowe, 2011).  

The Big Book Review has teamed up with the Prison Libraries Group, an active and welcoming community of prison library staff who are committed to securing wider recognition of the importance of prison libraries and the difference they make.  At the event we’ll be talking to three prison librarians about the titles that prisoners are drawn to. And we’ll try to answer why Martina Cole is gradually falling out of favour and why Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist seems to really hit the spot with prisoners. 

Beneath the debate there is an even more provocative question: does it really matter what you read as long as you read?

Before finding out more at our event you are invited to do our Big Book Survey to give us your opinion on what makes a quality reading experience.   

Photo by De an Sun on Unsplash.

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