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Reading, Rehabilitation, & Lower Recidivism



The following posting discussed a reading program established in prisons throughout the United Kingdom. The majority of inmates in England have literacy problems. It is obvious that reading and writing skills are important in order to obtain and maintain employment. This English initiative required the participant to pick six books to read and complete a reading diary to receive a certificate. The majority of American inmates also have major difficulties with reading and writing. During my time at three prisons, there were countless times that I helped inmates draft a simple request to their case manager or a letter to home. I encountered young men and old men who could not read or write a simple sentence. Books also help an individual to see beyond their own little world and in the end to know himself better. As one English inmate wrote in his reading diary:

“Reading this book made me think about life; made me think why do I go round hitting people when there ain’t a reason for it? It must just be pain. But I’ve calmed down a lot, I need to stop fighting.”

Press Release (
National reading charity The Reading Agency has started work with the Quick Reads initiative and a group of prisons across the UK to run a One Quick Read One Prison project. The aim is to get as many prisoners and staff as possible within a prison to read, review and share views about the same book as part of The Reading Agency’s annual, nationwide Six Book Challenge scheme, which encourages less confident adult readers to develop a reading habit and improve their skills.

A total of 2550 copies of the six Quick Reads titles published in 2013 have been distributed to the seven prisons taking part in the project so that each can get prisoners and staff all reading, reviewing and talking about the same book. See ‘Notes for Editors’ for how the books have been matched to prisons.

“Seven out of ten prisoners say they have a learning or literacy problem,” says Nick Walmsley, regimes manager at HMP Pentonville. “We believe in the Six Book Challenge because we’ve seen it have a big impact at Pentonville. Getting prisoners literate will reduce re-offending rates because it gives them more opportunities in life.” HMP Pentonville received a gold award from The Reading Agency in 2012 for achieving 153 Six Book Challenge completers amongst its prisoners.

The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge is designed to engage people with low literacy by encouraging them to develop a new reading habit at the same time as improving their skills. Taking part in the Six Book Challenge helps to give them greater access to employment and better life chances on release. More than 23,500 people registered for the scheme in 2012 through libraries, colleges, workplaces and prisons and 90% of survey respondents said that they were more confident about reading after taking part.

Participants are invited to pick six reads and complete a reading diary in order to receive a certificate. Among the most popular books for many participants are the Quick Reads titles, short books by top authors that are specially commissioned each year for less confident adult readers.

The Six Book Challenge is now run in 100 prisons each year with at least 4000 prisoners having taken part in 2012, including 1000 in London alone. Prison staff are also encouraged to take part as an effective way of breaking down barriers and opening up wider conversations about reading. This work is supported with funding from The City Bridge Trust and the Bromley Trust.

“Use of the Six Book Challenge in prisons is growing all the time as prison library staff and education tutors realise its potential for building confidence, skills and employability,” comments Genevieve Clarke, adult literacy specialist at The Reading Agency. “Focusing activity on this year’s strong list of Quick Reads is a great way to create a bigger buzz around the scheme.”

Cathy Rentzenbrink, project director for Quick Reads, says: “I’ve been doing my job for a year and was amazed to find out the extent to which the nation’s prisons are packed with people who struggle with reading. If you can’t read or write well enough to fill out forms everything about normal life is incredibly hard. We are delighted that the generous support of our publishers has enabled us to provide the books for this project as we know that engaging with books and reading helps prisoners to build both skills and confidence which should make them less likely to re-offend.”

Best-selling writer and former SAS soldier Andy McNab, ambassador for the Six Book Challenge, will be visiting HMYOI Portland in Dorset on 24 May to celebrate the distribution of 500 copies of his Quick Read title Today Everything Changes. This tells Andy’s own literacy journey from borstal to top author via the army, which he joined at 17 with the reading age of an 11-year-old.

Librarian Michele Vassar has planned a series of activities around the book at HMYOI Portland including a limerick competition, quiz and displays as well as encouraging everyone to read it as part of the Six Book Challenge.

“It is all about giving these lads confidence to take out of prison at the end of their sentence,” comments Andy McNab. “Confidence that they can walk into a library, bank or post office, confidence that they can fill in forms and ultimately, confidence to take control of their lives and hopefully not re-offend. It isn’t about mollycoddling criminals or giving them an easy ride, it’s about changing things for them so that we all, as a society, benefit when they come out.”

“There has been a great deal of interest in this year’s Six Book Challenge at HMP/YOI Portland,” reports Neil Davies, head of reducing re-offending. “We have had three times more than usual sign up to the Challenge so far. This has no doubt been influenced by the support of Andy McNab for the One Quick Read One Prison scheme. Encouraging prisoners to read is a powerful tool in preventing them from re-offending as it is, for some, the first steps in re-engaging with the education system.” (Please see ‘Notes to editors’ for more comments from HMP/YOI Portland prisoners about the Six Book Challenge.)

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