Books Unlocked, our partnership with the National Literacy Trust, encourages the UK’s prison population to engage with literature. Last month we invited the singer Dua Lipa to join our session with the reading group at HMP Downview as they discussed Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain
Twelve years ago, the Booker Prize Foundation joined forces with the National Literacy Trust to launch a unique project in Britain’s prisons. Books Unlocked began, according to Rebecca Perry, Head of Adult Literacy and Criminal Justice at the National Literacy Trust, ‘with a really simple idea: a group of young people in a young offender institution reading a Booker Prize title – bringing a cultural institution into a secure setting, to see what happens’.
What happened was that the simple idea – to encourage people to read for enjoyment, to read more often, and to engage with literature – soon spread across the prison network. Books Unlocked now reaches 95 prisons and young offender institutions across the UK and Republic of Ireland, with over 15,000 books having been donated to prison reading groups, prison libraries and individuals in prison, and with dozens of Booker-nominated authors, from Sarah Waters to Stephen Kelman, having visited prisons to discuss their work in reading groups and on National Prison Radio.
‘The reports we’ve had back over the past 10 years or so have been incredible,’ says Gaby Wood, Chief Executive of the Booker Prize Foundation, ‘in terms of people feeling a sense of achievement and feeling a huge amount of empathy from reading fiction, putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.’
Last month, we invited the award-winning singer-songwriter Dua Lipa – who is a huge advocate of reading; has interviewed a number of authors on her podcast, Dua Lipa: At Your Service; recently launched her own book club; and who last year delivered a keynote speech at the Booker Prize winner ceremony – to visit HMP Downview, a women’s closed-category prison in Surrey, to attend a reading group session facilitated by Prison Reading Groups. Afterwards, we asked Dua for her reflections, and whether the experience matched her prior expectations.
‘In all honesty, I didn’t have any expectations,’ she told us. ‘I knew it was a reading group and I was going to be meeting lots of women who were very interested in reading and have a shared love of reading and share books with each other. And so it was just kind of going into the room and understanding the books they love to read in their own time, how that makes them feel, how that’s been able to help them understand different emotions and feelings.’
The women at Downview had been invited by Books Unlocked to read Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain. The book had already been requested by 10 other prison reading groups and has been distributed widely across the prison estate via Books Unlocked. It also happened to be Downview’s LGBTQ Book of the Month. Dua will also be interviewing Douglas Stuart about the book at an event at Hay Festival on Saturday, June 3.
‘It’s been interesting to see their reaction to Shuggie Bain,’ Dua said, ‘and how it has either brought up certain feelings that could have been triggering or able to reflect and see how far they’ve come. That has been really inspiring and I’ve felt very privileged to be in that room to experience that with them.’
But the project doesn’t just ‘democratise the enjoyment of reading’, as Jonathan Douglas, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust, says. Another benefit is that it helps boost literacy levels – which is crucial when around 60 per cent of the prison population finds reading a challenge. ‘The majority have some reading skills but have never found their feet as readers,’ Douglas wrote in an article for the Booker website last year.
With Books Unlocked, Rebecca Perry points out, ‘People are able to improve their skills and then feel the benefits of that on release, when they are navigating the world again. Having an easier time when you’re released from prison makes a huge difference.’