#cilipnpd2013 Workshop B: Heaven or Hell: my life inside – a career in prison libraries

Workshop B:

Heaven or Hell: my life inside – a career in prison libraries

Chris Billing, Librarian, HMP Haverigg


Chris started by explaining that she has worked in prison libraries for 25 years. In prison terms, this would be equal to a life sentence without parole! Chris is currently the Vice Chair of the CILIP Prison Library Group (CILIP SLG) and emphasised that her talk would be given from a very personal perspective.

Chris explained that her reasoning behind her Heaven or Hell talk title as being due to her having many stories to tell from her work and that is was up to us as the audience to decide whether it could be a Heaven or a Hell story.

She also opened with the first of many fascinating anecdotes about a time when she mentioned to someone that she described as being pretty smart and knowledgeable that she worked in a prison library. The response: couldn’t you get a job in a proper library? We all groaned at this point.

[TW: rest of post has some discussion of crimes]

What is a prison library?

There are currently 132 prisons in the UK, of which 13 are privately run and 11 are women-only prisons. As of 27th September 2013, there were:

  • 84,430 individuals currently serving time
  • 80,499 of those are men
  • 3,933 of those are women

All prisons have a library. It is a legal requirement following the 1952 Prison Act. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not a legal requirement to have a library in a school. Chris asked everyone if we had seen prison libraries represented in film and TV. When many people drew a blank, she highlighted examples from The Shawshank Redemption where the library is built up over many decades and prison orderlies help out in the library, as well as Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. While these are not inaccurate representations, the reality is quite different.

In the UK, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), part of the Ministry of Justice, provides guidelines for all prison libraries. Often, the library services itself is contracted out to the local authority of the prison’s area. Library staff are actually employed by this local authority, as opposed to being employees of the prison itself. There is often a service level agreement in place which determines local practices such as opening hours and staffing levels.

All prisoners have the right to have access to the library for at least 30 minutes per week. If this access is denied for any reason, the prisoner has the right to complain to the ombudsmen.

At the HMP Haverigg prison library, there are six members of staff and between them they run the library for 364 days a year, and 48 hours a week. Chris mentioned that you often work in isolation because your local authority is often miles away from the prison. In addition, there is little chance of support and visits from colleagues due to access restrictions for security reasons.

Funding issues

NOMS provides ring-fenced funding which is provided directly to the prison governor, who then passes it on to the local authority to be used for the library. The governor is legally bound to use this money for the library and cannot funnel it into other projects around the prison. The funding situation is rather unique because while it is a secure source of income at a time when prisons are closing and are suffering from staff shortages, the budget total itself is never guaranteed so there is a conflicting lack of financial security as well. However, in its current state, the library budget is fairly secure and static.

Role of the prison library

Prison libraries play a big role in the prison’s reducing re-offending regime. It is able to empower prisoners with skills and every prison has an education department which is provided by an external body. Even with the security and restricted access, the prison library is technically a public library and not a college one. The library is accountable to the prison service and it is also regularly inspected by the Inspectorate of Prisons on behalf of Her Majesty. These inspections ensure that the prison library is catering for vulnerable groups such a non-English speaker and those with disabilities, as well as ensuring that education projects and opening hours are appropriate. The prison education department is inspected by Ofsted which also inspects the library and its role in education.

The range of services offered by a prison library can vary from prison to prison. For example, in maximum security facilities, prisoners need to be escorted. In Category C prisons, prisoners are able to roam freely. The prison’s security level dictates the level of service possible, as do the governor and the Senior Management Team of the prison itself.

It is sometimes hard to embed the library into the prison’s regime and you have to work proactively to convince the governor and promote your services to prisoners, especially those who are unaccustomed to using libraries in any way. The prison library often reflects a typically broad branch public library. There are lots of opportunities to develop new services and projects.

Literacy and education services in prisons

There are national programmes that can be offered to prisoners such as the Six Book Challenge which is ideal for prisoners who may not have read a book before. Chris described the great pride that many prisoners have when they complete the challenge and get their certificate. There is also a national programme called Toe by Toe which creates prison mentors who then help their fellow prisoners to read.

One programme that Chris spoke about at great length is the national Storybook Dads project. Twelve prisoners with children came to the library to talk about childrens’ books and reading to their child. Much of this work involves breaking down myths and explaining that it is ok for Dad to read to his child. Eventually, the prisoner records themselves reading a book onto a CD which then gets sent away for post-production work (sound effects and music are added for example) and it is then sent out to the child with a copy of the book so that they can read along with their Dad.

Chris played us a finished CD of a prisoner reading for his child and I must confess, it was a very moving and powerful experience. A lot of us appeared to suddenly have something in our eye!

As well as literacy, prisoners can practice for their Construction Skills Certificate Scheme card (a Health and Safety card) so that they can take the test once they are released. They can also do the same preparation for taking their driving test.

Finally, prisoners can also get involved with Ping Pong stories where the prisoner starts writing a story, sends it to their family, the family writes a bit more of the story and then sends it back. This goes on for a while and the story is built up over time. This not only helps the prisoner do something creative but also allows them to connect with their families even though they are separated.

Prison libraries are, however, not part of the digital age. There is no Internet access allowed for prisoners and while staff can use it for their work, any web-capable machines are kept in a locked office and access is very restricted.

Why prison libraries?

If you want to help people, then it is a perfect line of work. Apart from anything else, Chris joked, you have a captive audience! The job does require a very different skill set as you often have to deal with difficult people. These individuals have fallen out with society which is why they are in prison in the first place. However, library staff do get a lot of support and they have the prison’s discipline system to back them up. If any prisoner is offensive or aggressive, they are reported. The governor can ban things such as their daily newspaper or a visitation as punishment.

Training and security

Chris said that she feels safe in her work. Apart from anything else, if she didn’t feel safe, she wouldn’t come to work! Ironically, you do not have as much security and protection in public libraries so she feels quite fortunate that she can get help with a difficult patron, while public library colleagues are more limited. Prison library staff get a lot of training, especially in areas such as equality and diversity or how to help vulnerable individuals. They also get a lot of health and safety, and security training. The training is often on a monthly basis and it is helpful in ensuring that you keep a healthy perspective and don’t allow the daily pressures of your work overwhelm you.

Some of the training helps library staff make the right decision with prisoners. Chris gave us a typical and often tricky example. A prisoner that you have got to know asks you if you can post a birthday card to his niece as he has just missed the last post. The envelope is open and you can see clearly that it is indeed a birthday card to a young girl. However, you cannot do this for the prisoner. You would face disciplinary action for what seems like a harmless favour because, apart from anything else, you have no idea who the card is actually going to. The prisoner said it is his niece but it could also easily be for the daughter of a rape victim, or of an abused ex-wife. There are big consequences for what could initially appear as a purely innocent act.

In addition, if you say yes once, it can leave you open to blackmail and the prisoner expecting you to do the same again if they ask for another favour. Prisoners can groom you over a period of time and then will try and get you to do things for them that are against the rules. Staff are trained to recognise the signs of when this may be happening and are therefore better equipped to deal with the situation.

The main thing to be aware of when working around prisoners is to not mention anything about your personal life. Do not mention the colour of your car, your family, your children, where you work or anything else that could be used to make you vulnerable. Prisoners are always listening. Chris told us about a time when she mentioned that she was going to visit her son at Durham. A prisoner overheard and asked her if she meant Durham Prison. While she did not clarify that she actually meant the university, the prisoner was very impressed as apparently Durham has a reputation and Chris’ street cred amongst the prisoners went up a bit!

What do qualities do you need to be a prison librarian?

  • Trustworthy: you need to do what you say you will do. Prisoners have been let down too many times and they certainly don’t need to be let down by you as well
  • Listen/empathy: don’t talk AT prisoners. Listen to what they want to tell you
  • Assertive: as you are dealing with difficult individuals, you need to be seen as someone who cannot be taken advantage of
  • Sense of humour!
  • Persistent: get past NO! You need to be persistent in time when the governor isn’t being supportive and you have to convince him otherwise

Overall, you never know what you are going to get in this line of work.

Chris also clarified her use of the term “prisoner”.

A prisoner is someone who is in a prison. An inmate is someone who is in a mental health facility or a high-security psychiatric hospital such as Broadmoor.

Some final statistics of the overall UK prison population

(n.b. I did write these very quickly so apologies for any errors):

  • 47% have no qualifications
  • 41% are men
  • 30% are women
  • 36% have some form of disability or learning difficulty
  • 23% are dyslexic
  • 46% of women prisoners report having attempted suicide
  • 30% of women prisoners admitted to self harm
  • At the end of September 2012, around 23,134 prisoners had self-harmed in prison
  • 49% of men and 23% of women were assessed to be suffering from depression and/or anxiety

To conclude, Chris emphasised that prisoners have been punished by being in prison. There is little point in punishing them further while they are in prison. Instead, it is important to give them the skills to change their lives and behaviours so that they do not re-offend. Hopefully by giving them these new skills, they will make the right decision next time they find themselves in a similar situation.


Final thoughts

I must confess, this was the workshop that I was most looking forward to and Chris certainly did not disappoint. Of all the sessions that I attended on the day, she was the only person to overrun and in all honesty I think we didn’t want her to stop! I am a big believer in the power of giving people a second chance and the prison library is an integral part of the rehabilitation process.

Yes, many people who are in prison are there because they committed crimes and did some awful things. However, as Chris said, they are in prison as their punishment. They are separated from their families and their freedom to go wherever they please. If a prisoner is able to make this time behind bars count for something and use their time to get a qualification or develop other skills, they will inevitably be a better adjusted member of society and the tax payer’s money will be used towards something more productive than just keeping people locked in cells.

Chris is a very inspiring woman and I had a chance to chat with her afterwards and found her to be passionate and committed to the essential work that she does and the services that she provides to those prisoners who are, in a sense, under her care as an information professional. Public libraries can transform lives and a prison library is no different.

Further resources:

Article on re-offending history and statistics

Koestler Trust, Art by offenders

Prisoners’ Education Trust

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