Books Unlocked connects Oxfordshire prisoners with their local community

Harri painting - Books Unlocked

A collaborative reading project between the Oxfordshire County Council library at HMP Huntercombe, our Books Unlocked programme and housing association Soha Housing has been helping to break down barriers between prisoners and their local community through shared reading.

The Breaking Barriers Book Club, initially set up by two prisoners and prison library manager Neelam Rutti, has seen a group of Soha Housing staff and residents join the prison library reading group at HMP Huntercombe to discuss Pigeon English, a novel by author Stephen Kelman, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

When prisoners voiced concerns about not feeling part of the community, I was able to facilitate links with the local housing association and set up this reading group,” explained Neelam. 20 prisoners and 10 Soha staff and residents have been taking part in the project, meeting at the prison to share thoughts on the book with one another in an effort to build bridges between the different groups.

“As all of our men here will be released at some point, it is important that we do everything we can to help them avoid reoffending,” said Paul Crossey, Deputy Governor of HMP Huntercombe. “When members of the community, prison staff and prisoners come together in the library to talk about books and our common characteristics, it breaks down barriers and gives the men hope that they can turn away from a life of crime.”

At the end of the project, the group met for a final time to celebrate the achievements of the book group. Stephen Kelman joined the event to meet prisoners and Soha staff and residents, and answer questions about his book. Members of the group performed plays about life inside prison, read out poems they had written inspired by Pigeon English, and even shared artwork that they had created based on the book. One prisoner painted what he imagined Harri, the book’s main character, to look like, and presented the painting to Stephen at the end of the day.

“I had a great time meeting prisoners and staff at HMP Huntercombe,” said Stephen. “They had clearly bonded over their experience of reading the book together, and the warm welcome I received - not to mention the show they put on, with poetry readings and dancing - is something that will live with me.”

“The interaction between the groups has helped dispel some of the myths around prison life,” added Neelam. “It has enabled the prisoners to feel more comfortable with the wider community’s views, and has been extremely well received as a very worthwhile initiative that highlights the similarities between people rather than the differences.”