I honestly cannot recall meeting a bad librarian in a prison library. Then again, or one in the community. I’ve met strict librarians, but then, it was a prison library and some form of control was needed. However, librarians, especially ones who work in prison are worth their weight in gold.
Imagine if a doctor’s receptionist had the same attitude as a librarian?
I first fell in love with libraries at quite a young age. And at a time in my life when as a ten-year-old lost boy I was searching for something but didn’t know what, or probably wasn’t emotionally mature enough to understand what. Reflecting back with what I’ve learnt over the years I now realise I was looking for an identity. Coming from a large family, I was the youngest of six, meant I heard “you’re not like…” more than once a day and in more than one environment.
Why I couldn’t have just been me? Is something I can’t answer.
It was 1980, and a man had absconded from HMP Spring Hill. I didn’t know the difference between abscond and escape or what an open prison was back then, as far as I was concerned a man just walked out of a prison. WOW!
We didn’t have Google or the internet in 1980 so if you wanted to know more about a subject then off to the library it was.
The man’s name was Charlie Richardson. I read he was boss of who the press named ‘The Torture Gang’. Other gang members included his brother Eddie and another man they called ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. I was ten-years-old, it was an incredible story for me to have read. The more I found out the more fascinated I became. It was when my interest in history began. Once you begin to research it can become addictive, I’ve had periods in my life where life took over and I had to shelf my interest but in the main I’ve been researching ever since.
Over the years my interest in the history of organised crime was only matched by my interest in researching my family surname. I found out many years ago that the first and only English Pope, Adrian IV (1154-1159) had the name Nicholas Breakspear. He was born circa. 1100 in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire. A part of England close to where my ancestors on my father’s side came from. My surname eventually came to mean successful tournament fighter. It was first used in medieval days to describe a winning jouster. My family surname also appears in the Domesday Book.
Information and knowledge all gained from the library.
During my final prison sentence not only did the education department take care of my employment needs by becoming an education mentor, they also assisted me in gaining the relevant academic qualifications I needed. In fact, I owe the education department in HMP Norwich a huge debt of gratitude as well, especially the education manager Debs Stewart, I could go as far as saying not letting anyone down in that department is a major motivator for me to continue my success.
However, I also needed to fix me and prepare myself for freedom.
For my future.
Mental health provision in our prisons is not always the best. Having said that I was fortunate to have worked with a fantastic mental health nurse. More for support and advice as I searched for my own answers and coping mechanisms. The one place you can do that?
I’m not telling people this is the pathway to reform, I’m just sharing what I did so that I can highlight the importance of the library and librarians within our prisons.
Utilised in the right way the library can change your life, and guess what? The choice, yes choice, I know right having a choice in prison, is all yours.
On more than one occasion a member of the library team went above and beyond, and not just in their treatment of me. I was not the exception. Far from it. To paraphrase Churchill slightly ‘they are there for the many not just the few.’ In one example I was researching about suicide and a book I was after, unsurprisingly, wasn’t stocked in any of the libraries dotted around HMP Norwich. It was a book by French sociologist Émile Durkheim called, aptly enough, ‘Suicide’. At the end of a very long story, I was eventually given permission to have the book, and if it wasn’t for the persistent support from the library team it would never have happened. It was also through the library where I developed my creative writing skills. The library department ran a creative writing class in collaboration with the education department along with the University of East Anglia (UEA). A class I eventually mentored, however, an English lecturer from the UEA, Jacob Huntley, facilitated the course every Wednesday afternoon in a classroom on the top floor (3rd floor) of the education block.
Each week Jacob would also bring in students from his class at the university. Around 4-5 would attend each time. If I remember correctly each student could only attend a maximum of three sessions throughout a term. We also had the same amount of prisoners attending, along with myself. They always ended up as great sessions. Each in its own right and for different reasons each time. I had noticed that the students were inquisitive and had open minds in respect of our prisons and criminal justice system. They had their preconceptions, or should I say misconceptions, formed from the media and television shows/films. The realities of prison far removed from the perspective of Pinewood, or Hollywood. From this creative writing class we created a forum. A forum that included prisoners, university students, Jacob, myself as well as members of the library and education departments, and also, two governors. The offender management unit (OMU) governor and the head of reducing re-offending. It was an opportunity for the students, or as I saw them the future solicitors, barristers, judges, police or prison officers etc. to ask direct questions. This again would not have been possible without the wonderful support of the library team.
I was hoping to have extended it to a point where people from those careers I just mentioned along with local businesses also became a part of the forum. But! I had run out of time and was released from prison.
The books I had read to try and gain a better knowledge of who I was and to become who I wanted to be were also books not stocked in the libraries of HMP Norwich so they had to be ordered in. One book which was in stock and one I hadn’t thought of yet kept hearing about was The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
Wow, huge profound effect number one. Such a simple message too. Ask, believe, receive.
Worked for me, and still does.
Anyway, the other books, one was on transactional analysis where I learnt the difference between the adult, parent and child we all possess inside of us. Another, was on something called Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), I was interested more in where NLP came from. I read that NLP was created by studying individuals who were at the very top of their game in a number of varying occupations. NLP also discusses modelling behaviour. I don’t mean how to strut your stuff on the catwalk or how to pout but how and why others were/are at the top of their game. The final book and huge profound effect number four was a book by Walter Mischel called ‘The Marshmallow Test’. It was all about delayed gratification. Patience is a virtue and one that can and does get rewarded.
I said in a post “…as soon as you hear those immortal words “take him down”, your education begins. Especially if it is your first time, plus, you’re never too old to learn new things.” I’ve shared some of my experiences of my involvement with the prison library and I’d like to think through reading this article you can see how fundamental the library was, not just in turning my life around in prison but also how important the library has been throughout my life.