by Loesja Vigour
A prison library is a strange space. It is trapped in a bubble, capable of inspiring inspiration as quickly as frustration.
Sometimes a prisoners’ sense of time is warped–stretched–dragged out. What seems to them like a month waiting for a book they ordered has only been, in reality, a few days. Every prison librarian dreads the antagonistic desk-fist-slam attached to the sentence: “I’ve been waiting for my book for ages now – can you hurry it up for me, please?!”, and the wearisome response: “Mr —, you actually only ordered that book on Monday. It’s Wednesday. Please come back in at least a week.”
Sometimes, however, there are huge delays. Prison security, arbitrary prison bureaucracy, problems with stockists (our resources for acquiring new stock are somewhat limited). In these cases the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. We provide one major (legitimate!) escape for our prisoners from boredom, and through no fault of our own, we often can’t get it right. You can be as efficient as you like in prison, but if something is blocked from entering, it will sit at the door for a long time.
It is heart-warming though, when an unlikely visitor – hands down pants, gruff, unshaven face – accepts your learned literary recommendations and accepts your suggestion for what to read to while away their hours. Or when their face unexpectedly lights up at the mention of Shakespeare, Wilde, or a really good World War II biography.
Most rewarding for me is our Reading Group, which offers prisoners a geographical escape from prison life, on top of the mental escape any book can give them. For one morning every month the library is transformed into a private thinking space, where ideas bounce off the walls, prisoners are alive with opinions and anecdotes, and copious amounts of tea is consumed. Regardless of its reception, every book we study ignites long, flowing, and often unexpected debates about life, art, and living. More often than not the sessions also foster a moment for prisoners to grow academically in a walled-in environment so shut off from the world.
As a group we read canonical works, historical fiction, chick lit, novels with homosexual protagonists (a contentious subject!), female protagonists, murderers, religious fundamentalists, politicians… and always these male inmates of mixed ages, races and levels, spark such intimate, intelligent, and informed discussion, I feel like my world has opened up, despite theirs being very closed.
Our primary Reading Group policy is openness and inclusion, which really helps to fuel thoughts and encourage discussion. No opinion is discredited.
What is best about Reading Group however, is that its longevity depends entirely on the enthusiasm and attendance of its members, and nobody wants to play truant just yet.
Author Loesja Vigour lives in the UK, where she works in a prison library.Pin It