Since June, I’ve been voluntarily co-running a reading group at HMP/YOI Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Middlesex. Ours is one of 32 groups supported by the Prison Reading Groups project, a partnership between the University of Roehampton and the Prisoners’ Education Trust, initially funded by the AHRC.
The monthly sessions vary: sometimes we discuss a novel chosen and distributed in a prior session, and sometimes we read poetry or short stories aloud together. For the November session, the six members took turns to select and share poems from the Bloodaxe anthology Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, edited by Nick Astley. Discussion was energetic, ranging widely across readers’ personal responses, reflections on genre and form, and questions about author and voice. One woman gave a particularly entertaining performance, reading Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ to delighted applause.
Next month we’ll be discussing Andrea Levy’s Every Light in the House Burnin’. We’re also promised a poem or two written by one of the reading group’s members, inspired by a book on Caribbean mythology.
Whether the women enjoy the group for the opportunity to imaginatively escape the prison for a couple of hours, for the precious encouragement of others when reading aloud – whatever their literacy skills – or simply for the library carpet (a rare home comfort for those on the inside!), it continues to be well attended. Facilitating the group is a privilege, both for the opportunity to meet these lively and interesting women, and for the pleasures of sharing the act of reading.