HMP Edinburgh and Greenock

Booked! behind bars…

Booked! and the Book Festival have a longstanding commitment to engaging prison inmates in literary and cultural activities. Building on the success of an event with musician Edwyn Collins last year, we continued our relationship with HMP Edinburgh with another Booked! event in 2016.

As a reformed convicted murderer who completed a life sentence, author Erwin James was a particularly appropriate and inspiring choice of speaker.

The audience were totally absorbed in his presentation and I think many felt inspired by the way in which he has turned his life around.Barbara Brown, HMP Edinburgh Librarian

Following a difficult childhood and an early life of petty crime which turned increasingly violent, Erwin was convicted of murder at the age of 27. Joan, a prison psychologist, transformed his life by encouraging him to read, get an education, and confront his past. Erwin would go on to receive a BA in History, become a regular columnist for the Guardian and a successful author, with books documenting his time in prison and his redemption.

It was a good insight into a different perspective and a new experience for me… it was thought provoking.

We supplied HMP Edinburgh’s library with several copies of his most recent book, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope, for inmates to borrow and read. Extracts were also read aloud by prisoners over the prison radio, and Erwin was interviewed live on air, allowing all prisoners to access the book and some of Erwin’s event.

The event was also tied in with the prison’s Reading Ahead Challenge, which sees prisoners opting in to read 6 stories (short stories, novels or graphic novels) by the end of the summer. All prisoners who opted in to the challenge were invited to attend as an incentive, and those who completed the challenge were presented with their certificate by Erwin at the end of the event, and entered into a draw to win a copy of the book.

A total of 30 prisoners attended, both male and female. Erwin delivered an honest and inspirational talk about his time in prison, his regrets, and what he has been able to achieve since his release. Prisoners took the opportunity to ask questions and continued talking to Erwin following the event. Those receiving a certificate seemed to enjoy the recognition of their accomplishment too.

Ten days later, as part of Inverclyde Booked! Festival, we hosted a special author event at HMP Greenock. The event was hosted in partnership with Inverclyde Libraries, who are eager to develop their relationship with the prison, which lacks a full library service.

Building on the success of an event held there in 2015, forty prisoners – once again a mix of male and female – came together for a chaired author event with Canadian writer Sarah Leipciger, there to discuss her debut novel The Mountain Can Wait. The group was immediately engaged and held by Sarah’s discussion, which was followed by a lively question and answer session. Questions ranged from plot and character analysis, the nature of fate and the criminal justice system, to the wild landscapes of Canada. Sarah also works as a creative writing tutor at HMP Wandsworth, and both the prisoners and teachers in the audience were interested in how her tutoring in such an environment fed back into her work as a writer. Following the event, one of the teachers mentioned the value of one particular conversation that Sarah had inspired on the benefits of giving and receiving criticism, an issue which was particularly pertinent in her classes.

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