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News story

Libraries Week 3 -9 October 2022: Libraries as the beating heart of prison life

03 Oct 2022

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The importance of libraries in prisons

Prison libraries can provide an influential hub of community and learning for people in custody. They are a calming space for anyone and everyone; from people just learning to read right through to those who read multiple books a week. As in the community, prison libraries have the power to be one of our most valuable assets for ensuring books and the joy of reading are accessible to all.

National Literacy Trust is an independent charity and we recognise that our projects to improve literacy within the criminal justice system would not be possible without the support of prison libraries and librarians. Each of our projects has a specific focus area and take very different approaches to literacy improvement, meaning that prison libraries are an essential project delivery space. We understand that many people in prison have had a negative experience of school and formal learning environments. Working with libraries as distinctly separate spaces from classrooms means that we can reach people who, for a whole host of reasons, do not want to engage with education.

Our flagship project, Books Unlocked, provides access to Booker Prize shortlisted and longlisted books, audiobooks and authors in prisons across the UK. Just recently, we received extremely positive feedback from a young person who took part in Books Unlocked: “I love receiving free books and getting to read them in my cell. When I get released I’m going to go to the library which I have never done before.”

“I love receiving free books and getting to read them in my cell. When I get released I’m going to go to the library which I have never done before.”

Young person who took part in Books Unlocked

This project would not run smoothly without the support of prison librarians. They consult with reading groups to place book orders, promote and recruit for our events and arrange for participants to be picked up and brought over from their cells to the library to take part.

Our other projects include New Chapters, an initiative supporting young people in prisons and young offender’s institutions to share their stories through creative writing workshops led by authors with relatable lived experiences. Additionally, we run an audio skills project with Audible called Inside Stories, which helps equip young people with audiobooks and podcasts, audio production skills and interview skills. Our newest criminal justice project, Readconnect, works with parents who are separated from their children in order to give them the skills and confidence to use storytelling as a means of connection while in custody.

Once again, we rely hugely on the help of prison librarians; firstly, for practicalities such as distributing session resources, collecting participants’ work and setting up the library to make it a welcome space. This is hugely important because – both for those in custody and those visiting – the majority of the prison feels like a priority risk management zone, evident through visual features such as lockable metal gates and barbed wire fences. In the library people can experience something different, whether it’s renting a DVD, playing a game of chess, browsing magazines or checking out books.

We are thrilled that prison librarians continue to advocate on our behalf to ensure that the work we deliver to improve literacy levels for those in the criminal justice system has the backing of senior prison staff. Through our work, we help prison libraries become inspiring, impactful community centres where all are welcome.

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