Helping prisoners learn to read inside Swansea prison

Prison library

As part of our series on life inside jail to coincide with the opening of HMP Berwyn superprison, we look at the award-winning work being done in Swansea to get prisoners reading.

They look like two librarians who would greet you at any normal library, but on a daily basis they deal with criminals.

Valerie Samuel and Vicky Dickeson run the prison library at HMP Swansea - trying to encourage prisoners to read and study to help their rehabilitation.

They have been credited with turning the library into a sanctuary and having a "huge impact on prisoners' lives".

A number of prisoners have learnt to read and others are studying university courses while serving their sentences.

A mural as you enter the library reads "in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity". It is a sentiment the librarians have taken to heart.

Tony, a prisoner at HMP Swansea, said: "Before I came to the prison library I never thought of doing sitting and reading a book, if I was sat on the wing I would have got into trouble.

"Now I'm doing things I never would have done before, and reading books I never would have touched before."

Inmates are studying everything from interior design to maths on long distance learning courses.

Tony credits the library with helping him change his outlook.

He said: "Before I came to jail my range of reading was not huge, but I am now reading way more. If the library wasn't here people would go a bit mad.

"Reading takes you out of the walls, if it wasn't here the jail would be worse."

The librarians have deliberately chosen to make their library as close to any other local community library as possible.

Most popular genres in HMP Swansea

  1. True Crime
  2. Comics
  3. Crime fiction
  4. Fantasy
  5. Sport
  6. Poetry

Inside the small room there are magazine racks with National Geographic and Gardeners World, alongside shelves of legal tomes and crime fiction.

The only clues to the fact the library is housed in a prison are the thick bars on the windows, and a panic button in case of emergencies, although neither librarian said they have had to use it yet.

Dan, a prisoner studying for an English degree from jail, said: "I'm 29 now, I hadn't picked up a book in my adult life and the librarians encouraged me to do it.

"When I progress with my work, I think they feel proud. They show you that you can have a chance."

Mrs Samuel said: "We have created a very positive environment, we give people encouragement - from those improving their literacy right through to those who are studying."

True Crime is the most popular genre at the library but the librarians wrapped up some books from different genres as a lucky dip during one month to encourage prisoners to read something different.

Dan said: "I read Me Before You and cried. As I have never read this kind of thing I was surprised to find I enjoyed it."

The two women also encourage inmates to learn to read through the Shannon Trust mentor scheme - where prisoners tutor fellow inmates.

"One prisoner's goal was to be able to read with his children," said Mrs Samuel.

"He asked for help so he would be confident reading with them. He had help from a Shannon Trust mentor.

"Now he has gone full circle and become a mentor himself."

Craig, the prisoner who learnt to read for his children, said: "I have been given what I needed to encourage me to stay out of trouble when I get outside.

"I completed a book challenge and as my prize I asked for two books to read to my children.

"I hope that me learning will encourage my children to do it too.

"Now I have started reading I want to read other things. I finish every book I start and try to encourage every new prisoner to get involved with the library."

The library holds 5,000 books for the maximum 503 prisoners at HMP Swansea and it is open for three hours every morning.

If it does not have a book a prisoner can request it from the town's Central Library, which is over the road from the prison.

Mrs Samuel said: "We are constantly touting for business. We are always trying to convert people and encourage them to use the library.

"If we are out on a wing and see someone we haven't spoken to before, or who says they don't like books we will say, 'what about comic books?' and often they won't have thought we stock them."

A group of prisoners put forward Mrs Samuel and Mrs Dickeson for the "outstanding individual" award in an annual competition run by the Prisoners' Education Trust.

Mary Perrot, head of learning skills at HMP Swansea, said: "They have only been here for two years, they brought with them really creative and innovative ideas, and a holistic idea of what the library should bring to the men."

More on this story