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troublemag | July 7, 2022

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Books Behind Bars

Books Behind Bars

Lisa D’Onofrio

“I always thought reading was for nerds, it was hard work, not for me, covered in tatts and thick. Now I know better. What’s next?”

It’s a Friday afternoon, in a nondescript classroom that’s seen better days. The view from the wall to wall window is standard central Victorian – a small dam of dung coloured water, fringed by scraggly gums and couple of ducks – apart from the 3-metre fence, topped with razor wire, and a pair of patrolling officers. Eight men aged from their twenties to their fifties sit around the table, drinking instant coffee from paper cups.

“This book was shit,” begins one, flashing me a ‘sorry, miss’ look.

“You only got to page 45”, says another.

“Well, I really liked it, I could relate to the bit where …” joins in a third.

The conversation is robust but respectful, and meanders from reactions to the text, speculations about the author, to the men’s personal stories.

I’ve run many similar groups and the power of discussion never ceases to startle me. Responses are rich and diverse, and we all come out “understanding the world and each other a little better” as one now released prisoner commented.

The Book Group and other programs, initiated and administered by the Friends of Castlemaine Library and funded by various sources, began in a central Victorian prison in 2012, starting with Read Along Dads (RAD).

With RAD, prisoners read aloud stories to their children. These stories are recorded and the book and recording sent to the child. This enterprise was an immediate success, with men from all backgrounds and literacy levels participating.

Through being stuck in a small room with a man (often weeping) a pile of books and a digital recorder, other conversations were sparked, and I realised there was a desire and need for other literacy-based projects. Prisons run English Education programs, but the types of things which seemed necessary to address come under what I deem “social literacy.”

I define social literacy as a culture beyond the nitty gritty of learning to read and write; it’s about communication and how that leads to connection, with yourself, family, community and the world.

Creative writing classes began, followed by regular book group meetings and shared reading. Shared reading, inspired by the work of The Reader organisation in the UK, is for people of all abilities, who come together to share a story and a poem. Participation in one group often leads to another – one prisoner wrote:

“Through book group and creative writing sessions I am given the opportunity and cause to discuss and gain deeper understandings and mindfulness on broad neutral topics that as a group we are forced to adapt our own individual discussions, adjusting to said piece of literature almost as a banner we are able to unite under, if only for the brief moment of deliberation of shared reading and further contemplation.”

Doing this work for over 25 years, I know it’s not very often that a book can instantly change a life, but it does open doors – and minds, if even just a crack. This can be illustrated by many of the men I’ve worked with, but one particular prisoner, *Michael springs to mind.

Michael began RAD in mid-2016, as a way of re-connecting with his four daughters. He’d known about RAD for a year, but had declined to participate due to his perceived lack of reading and learning abilities, thinking it was too late for him to start anything new.

After persevering with RAD, he realised that not only were his relationships with his children improving, he actually enjoyed choosing the books and reading them out loud. With encouragement from me, he joined the Book Group, and then Creative Writing classes. Before one class, I’d given him That Was Then, This is Now by SE Hinton, telling him that his teenage daughter might like him to read it to her for RAD, and it would be good if he could have a look through it before we did the recording the following week.

A few days later, he burst into class, waving the book around and gushing: “This has fucken triggered me brain. From reading, I’m more awake. When I go to sleep, instead of thinking about telly or stewing over something that happened in the day, I’m fucking thinking about this book! … I woke up at 4 am and read it before let out – I got stuck into it then. It made me feel, you know, nothing bad, just feel … I only started reading when I came in here. It’s the third book I’ve ever read in my life – the first was Underbelly 10, and the second was Chopper. This was the third.”

We continued the discussion, Michael’s mind being further blown by SE Hinton being female and relatively young when she wrote the book.

Michael’s reading journey has continued with The Outsiders and he has concluded: “in them books, the characters read a fair bit, and the people who read are pretty smart. I always thought reading was for nerds, it was hard work, not for me, covered in tatts and thick. Now I know better. What’s next?”

*Not his real name.

Author S.E. Hinton as a teen, is shown shortly before The Outsiders was first published in 1967. COURTESY OF PENGUIN YOUNG READERS GROUP


First Edition 1967

This article originally appeared on the SBS website as What it’s Like Running a Book Club in Prison