The Great Escape (PG*)

"To prison librarians, one and all, thank you for the work that you do."

*PG stands for Politician’s Guidance. This means a blog is suitable for general reading, but some words may be unsuitable for politicians. A PG blog should not unsettle a politician aged around fifty or older. Political advisers based in Petty France [1] should consider whether the content may upset younger, or more sensitive, politicians.

Wot yoo ar reeding now is being writ by an ex-priznor. Most priznors av a reeding leval ov an 11 yeer old, innit…

Most – but not this one. I was fortunate enough to be well educated as a child before I messed-up spectacularly and ended up serving a [fully deserved – very short] prison sentence in 2011 for theft from my employer. Like I said; messed-up. Being told by Judge Jeffreys that I was off to clink (barely audible over the noise of my knocking knees and distracted by my ocular organs urgently double-checking there was no handy black cap loitering in the vicinity) was shock enough… being waltzed onto a prison wing – as a guest – heart pumping with awesome dizziness – slammed at my conscience with a mallet trademark. The wrecking-ball’s internal bruising; permanent.

For I, should have known better.

Clocks can’t be turned back though.

Apart from bone-chilling shivering miserable shame enveloping me like a tent – you try being literate, educated and armed with a posh voice, doing prison – what struck me a thousand fold was the hand of friendship that extended my way from fellow prisoners. That – and the prerogative exhibited by so many of them to be inquisitive as to how to better themselves whilst doing bird. Be of no doubt that most who had utilised their decision-making-department – up-top – appeared to draw the same conclusion. There was only one place that a beeline was to be navigated to.

The prison library.

It is of no coincidence that so many penitentiary pieces on screen focus around the bibliothēca within the walls of chokey. Think about it. Andy gets the prison library up and running in The Shawshank Redemption, Fletch hankers to work the tomes whilst doing time in Porridge and the first Escape Committee meeting in The Great Escape is held amongst the spines of volumes. Every Tom, Dick and Harry celluloid cell stir-saga has its library focus.


Because it is an oasis.

Prisoners contrive libraries like bees cortège crave nectar. Those that can read inhale the carbohydrate energy source of titles, whether it be literary escapism – and possible subconscious written triggers inadvertently discharged to set about a new way of living their lives – or rummaging reference books to assist on studies, invariably more often than not, maintained by the sensational Prisoners’ Education Trust.

Those that can’t read – or are struggling with their ABC’s – of which there are heart stopping frighteningly high amounts – you wouldn’t believe the quotas – often can be found at full spate in the corner of a prison library practicing the Shannon Trust’s stunning Reading Plan (née Toe by Toe) where trained literate prisoner peer-mentors guiding-hand tutor their colleagues, who twinkle like Christmas lights as they realise mastering literacy is not impossible.

Inhabitants of prisons therefore, find the library the one place that vaguely resembles life on the outside. A place to escape (calm down HMPS, I don’t mean that literally). A place to learn. A place to read. A place to learn to read. The A list then.

And from my experience, staffed by personage showing passion to assist and encourage prisoners like no other. Prison librarians were put on this earth to rehabilitate their customers. I was recruited as a library orderly in my first prison – anyone need their card stamped? – and witnessed first-hand the undiluted energy that flew out of folk whose passport’s occupation credential cites prison librarian. Oh, what the prison service could learn and absorb from the culture of individuals who run the book repository in a jail.

To prison librarians, one and all, thank you for the work that you do.

Whilst those who do that voodoo that they do so well within HMP library circles, more than playing their cards right, the rest of the Tarot pack that is in-prison rehabilitation within the walls shook me to my very bones. Where do I start on the house of cards? The spelling mistakes/grammatical errors in the induction paperwork? The staff found asleep on duty? The banning of (the proven to reduce reoffending) Shannon Trust’s literary peer-support scheme – in an open resettlement prison, no less – where there were no walls… I could go on…

I probably sound like I’m whinging. I am not complaining – and never have – about being imprisoned. I mucked up – that’s with an m by the way – but the extraordinary nothingness observed – from my ringside seat – going on for the masses spending time chez HRH was a gargantuan eye-opener for me. Put it this way; the engine-room telegraph on the good ship purposeful activity was pretty dormant.

And things have got worse. Staff cut-backs have hindered rehabilitation, library access has reduced, suicides have gone up, the proportion of prisoners working has only sedately risen by 1% in four years and as the horrific reoffending figures remain off the Richter scale, those stony eye dignitaries at the helm of our incongruous prison system, the politicians, continue to react with pure wheedle phoney fabrication dominated to keep the tabloids happy (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen the word robust in press-releases originating from the bowels of the Petty France battlement).

The cultivated hesitant vagueness of in-prison rehabilitation needs to stop. And stop right now.

I was surrounded by a great many people in prison more than willing to admit past mistakes. In my drum-banging for prison reform, the fulcrum of holding one’s hands up is heavily offset at the other end. Until the pedigree of those running the cluttered show admit it’s an ultimate mess – acknowledge the loaded rehabilitation gun is firing mammoth blanks with utter disarray – and maybe have a close look at the immense enthusiasm and legendary leadership displayed by prison librarians – that so often ignites numerous erudite prisoners to set-off on a new path, it is going to be a very long time before our prison system turns itself around and escapes the snags of its current rehabilitation botch-job.

C’mon Petty France, It’s time for the great escape.

About CILIP’s prison libraries briefing

The purpose of this briefing is to provide information about prison library services in England and Wales.

It provides information about the legislative framework which governs the operation of prison libraries and how prison libraries are funded. It includes key statistics about prisons in England and Wales including the prison population.

This briefing covers the role of prison libraries and prison librarians and the difference they make to the lives of prisoners their families and the wider community.

Key facts

  • 47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications, compared to 15% of the working age general population in the UK
  • In 2011-12 just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison
  • 40% of prisoners have literacy skills so low that on release they are ineligible for more than 90% of jobs


[1] 'Petty France' is a reference to a road in London where the Ministry of Justice are based

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