What reading in prison means to me

In our page in last month’s Inside Time PET asked our readers to tell us about their relationships with books and reading. We also took the question to a Prison Reading Group at HMP Wandsworth. To mark World Book Day, here’s what they said.

"I can be locked in my cell and yet at the same time find myself in Coketown in 1854 listening to Mr Bounderby talk about himself; or I could be at a ball with Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennett. I can lose hours of prison time getting caught up in the lives of the characters or in the plot of a good crime fiction."

Has your relationship with reading changed since going to prison?

Matthew: “I had only read a handful of books before I came to prison. But in the seven months I have been incarcerated I have read more than 50.”

Nicholas: “I first fell in love with books when I got my first prison sentence in the 1990s, a time before TVs were put in most cells. When I picked up my first book inside I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t wait to get back to my cell to carry on reading them all. Reading was a great form of escapism from the bad times. Back then it took me out of my mind, out over the wall and into another world filled full of learning and great knowledge and rehabilitation. In here, we often talk about what books we have all read and what we are currently reading, and I have found it a very good ice-breaker in prison. The prison library has been a godsend for me as it allows me a bit of peace in Bedlam.”

Lisa: “Now I am at a prison where I can’t buy books, and I’m resorting to what I thought I would never do – rereading old favourites and discovering nuances I missed the first time. Somewhat ironically the restricted access to books in prison has also hugely expanded the range of my reading interest. I’m dipping into Jeffery Archer, George Elliot, exploring history and psychology and walking hand in hand with travel writers.”

Steve: “I read outside more than I do inside. In many ways prison offers the perfect opportunity to read, but I have Asperger’s and have found it very difficult to adjust to this new environment or focus on doing anything at all, even reading. But my mum recently sent me a book that related to my own situation, and that’s got me gripped.”

Andrew: “I’ve read more since I’ve been here. Outside I hadn’t really read since school, but here I’ve got through the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. I’ve also had time to read the Old and New Testament and the Book of Mormon. It’s been helpful in terms of my faith, which ironically explains why I’m here today. After I rejoined my Church I decided the only way to atone for a crime was to come forward and repent – to admit and apologise for what I had done and to accept punishment. I take solace in the messages of the New Testament, particularly in Jesus Christ’s message of forgiveness, repentance and having faith in everyone I come across.”

 “I like non-fiction mostly. You hear a lot of gossip in prison but when you read a book you know the facts yourself."

What book changed your life for the better?

Matthew: “There is one book that I was recommended by a chance conversation that has changed my life for the better. The book is A Brief History of Time by Professor Stephen Hawking. Something was in my brain when I finished that book. I found out that I really enjoy physics, so I started to read more books on the subject and then decided to apply for a mathematics degree through the Open University with the view of going into physics upon completion and release.”

Nicholas: “I have so many favourite books as I have read so many over the years. But if I had to choose I would say my first would be The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Then my second would be a fiction book - Exocet by Jack Higgins.”

Catharine: “Children’s literature is an absolute passion of mine. I was taught to read at the age of two by my grandmother, and had read Black Beauty on my own by the age of five. I followed this with many children’s classics, including The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. How I wish JK Rowling had written the Harry Potter saga years earlier so I could have studied it at school! Like a lot of children’s books, it has the basic premise that good overcomes evil, however the subplots that run through are extremely well written. I have read all the books many times, and have yet to find one flaw in the plot.”

John: “I’m currently reading The Road Less Travelled, a psychological book which is about avoiding the pain of suffering. I’m reading it alongside my partner and we discuss it when she visits me. It’s teaching me to examine myself and my past behaviour, and is leading to deeper conversations than we might normally have. Most importantly it is teaching me about love – the emotional side - which is something I could learn something about.”

Edward: “I like non-fiction mostly. You hear a lot of gossip in prison but when you read a book you know the facts yourself. I recently enjoyed accounts of Apple’s formation and Michael Jackson’s biography. He was one of the most controversial figures in our culture, and the author isn’t gentle with him, but I think he’s pretty fair.”

Mark: One of my favourite characters is M.R Halls’ Jenny Cooper. I fell in love with her in The Coroner and simply had to read the rest of the series. Jenny Cooper might have this wonderful job and expects responsibility (to the living and the dead) and offers respects, but her private life is a mess and her choice of lovers….dubious (she does find herself arrested due to her boyfriend and cannabis). She is often hindered and chased by the authorities because of her tenacity to do her job – at whatever cost.

"It’s teaching me to examine myself and my past behaviour, and is leading to deeper conversations than we might normally have. Most importantly it is teaching me about love – the emotional side - which is something I could learn something about.”

What does reading mean to you?

Mark: I can be locked in my cell and yet at the same time find myself in Coketown in 1854 listening to Mr Bounderby (Hard Times, Charles Dickens) talk about himself – something he likes to do a lot of. I could be at a ball with Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen). I can lose hours of prison time getting caught up in the lives of the characters or in the plot of a good crime fiction.

Nicholas: “Without reading I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Reading helped with my spelling and I have developed a huge wealth of knowledge on all different subjects after the years. I have also developed a new-found love of the English language and the various words and their meanings; I pick out a new word in the dictionary everyday, mostly before I go to sleep when I am sat up reading.Reading makes me want to go and visit new places when I get out. It’s made me have so much more respect for different people and cultures and the various different religions than I would have done, from just growing up on my council estate reading red-top newspapers.Reading is the first path to self-rehabilitation and rehabilitation is the next path to success. Your life does not get better by chance it gets better by change and just by picking up that first book can have the biggest impact.”

Edward: “Reading has actually saved me from a fight with my cellmate many times. We’re supposed to share the TV, but he doesn’t always agree to let me choose what to watch. But when I have a book I can disappear with that and become lost inside another world instead.”

Lisa: “What does reading mean to me? Everything – education, entertainment and occasionally when dipping into a letter or memoir, companionship. This has been a lifelong obsession stemming from a long hospital stay aged five that gave me a dramatic jump in reading ability and variety. As I matured, this variety narrowed into science for my inner autodidact and science fiction for escapism with an occasional Shakespeare in the park in remembrance of school and university reading. Books in short are essential for my life and sanity and not being able to buy them in my current prison is tugging at my heartstrings. Hopefully release will come before I have read the entire library! Ah relief in the shape of World Book day!

Thanks to Matthew, Lisa, Nicholas, Mark and Catharine who wrote to us from prison, and to the Prison Reading Group at HMP Wandsworth. Some names have been changed.