Six Book Challenge in a Kent Prison

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As one of the Prison Library Development Managers, I am co-responsible for the three prison libraries in the Isle of Sheppey cluster, which are HMP Swaleside, HMP Elmley and HMP Standford Hill. We did try to launch the 6 book challenge in 2008, but with very limited success.

I decided this year to be much more proactive in the approach to the challenge. To increase the sense of achievement of reading 6 books I asked for some funding to buy small incentives or prizes. The idea was that the participants would receive a small prize for reading three books, and then a slightly larger one for finishing the challenge. I did get the funding, and bought pens, coasters and Mars bars for the 3 book half way mark and had some melamine mugs printed up with “I’m a winner” on them for the finish. (We have been instructed not to supply china mugs in the closed prisons).


To give the participants:

The Project

I informed all of the staff at Swaleside and we set about promoting the challenge. The education tutor for basic literacy brought in her class, who all joined. I asked them what they would like most as an incentive for finishing, and they unanimously voted for small dictionaries; as a result I was able to buy some for prizes – they have been tremendously popular. We also promoted the challenge by putting posters up on each of the wings, and in the library. We run several reading groups between us and we told all the participants of these reading groups about the challenge so that they could pass the word round. We did not put any restrictions on what counted as a “book” for the purposes of the challenge – we accepted any version of the printed word – for example magazines, but we did stipulate that it had to read, not listened to so spoken word CDs were out! We have not long moved into a new library at Swaleside and have a lot of new stock, so we do regular displays of new books to generate interest in different subjects and genres.

Qualitative and/or quantitative evidence of impact and evaluation

In Swaleside prison we have a good “Toe by Toe” scheme, which involves some offenders acting as mentors to others who are learning to read, or who find it challenging. I was interviewed by one of the mentors for the “Swaleside Times” magazine, which was more publicity. The Toe by Toe mentors would also bring their mentees in, and assist them to choose something to read. As a direct result of this we were able to start a new reading group, concentrating on short stories and easy reads, especially for those who find any sort of reading a challenge.

The other big difference in this year to last, and a part of the success is the incentives, especially the chocolate!

The biggest support that I had in this and the library’s biggest asset is its staff – Pauline, Paula and Aisha. All have shown enthusiasm and commitment to the scheme and have worked hard to promote it and to keep the momentum going. When any one of us takes in a completed diary we talk to the offender about what he has read, how he has enjoyed it, what recommendations he would like to make for future stock purchases etc. All of us work hard to promote the library – we have had competitions and quizzes, we have a notice board for book reviews, we have just run a poetry competition, we have regular displays and have plenty of ideas for future competitions.

As I write we have 72 completions, with more in the pipeline. The challenge will finish at the end of June, after having run for 3 months.

The feedback from the offenders is equally enthusiastic – we are now getting asked “When’s the next challenge?” or “Are you having any more competitions?” In any environment it is important to celebrate success, this is even more so in a prison. The recognition of having achieved your goal is a huge boost, and of course the Mars bar is an added bonus!

Offenders quotes' (August 2009): All offenders at HMP Swaleside, their answer to the question "What did you like best about doing the Challenge?"

Keith - I like to read out loud in class rooms as well as discuss in the class and help out when I can. Thank you for doing the diary. I enjoyed read all the books and the library makes me happy.
Dion - you've ended up with 15 books out of me here, enjoyed the challenge as it keeps my brain moving when I've shut down myself for the 10 years I've got to sit in a cell. Nice to escape the doldrum of prison and immerse myself into a story book. THANKS
Jamie - it was a good task and also enjoyable. The library has some good ideas to encourage people to read. Very good.
Gary - the challenge helped me to get back into reading more and made my time go very quickly in my cell, gave me something else to focus on. And has helped me with my spelling as well. Good challenge.
Andrew - I liked it because it pushed me to do more reading.

Who runs this project?

Prison Library Development Managers and the Prison Library Staff

See also Six Book Challenge

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