Looking back on #GLTU13: Cornton Vale

27 Jan

Recent events have prompted Jennifer Higgins to submit this guest post, as she explains:

Following yesterday’s announcement that the Scottish Government is scrapping plans for a £75 million prison, I thought I’d return to a draft blog from #GLTU’s visit to Cornton Vale’s prison library, which I initially started in June 2014. Eight months later, my notes serve as a reminder not just of the day itself, but of the remarkable women we met working in Education and Outreach services at Stirling Council whose ‘back-to-basics’  approach places both education and libraries at the centre of prisoner reform.

#GLTU13’s visit to Cornton Vale women’s prison was a timely occurrence following the recent controversy over MP Chris Grayling’s decision to ban book donation to prison libraries. [A decision declared unlawful in December, 2014]. It was with this in mind that a group of librarians travelled to the outskirts of Stirling, flanked by the Trossachs and the Wallace Monument, to meet Liz Moffat, Outreach Librarian at Stirling Libraries and Carol, who helps to deliver that outreach.

Filing through security, and following a prison officer across the grounds, we were greeted by Kaye Stewart, Learning Centre Manager, who described the work being done at the prison around learning and literacy. Kaye’s sincerity about the education of the women she works with at the prison was, for me, one of the most memorable aspects of the visit. She spoke candidly about the learning projects being run at the prison while showing us around the space. She stopped to describe the importance of a recently opened kitchen space designed to teach inmates life-work skills, the ‘Create and Curate’ art project (where inmates were led by artist Brigid Collins), and how the work of reading groups such as Carol’s embodied the impact that reading has for the women who attend. One woman, for example, disclosed to Liz that she had just finished reading her first book having learnt how to read at Cornton Vale.

In the Library, we learned about New College Lanarkshire’s contract to deliver education through a librarian in Shotts Prison rather than, as is the case at Cornton Vale, the prison library being staffed by inmates. Kaye described how the new Grampian women’s prison, and those at Greenock and Edinburgh, have led to fewer inmates at Cornton Vale, now earmarked for closure. With budgets for prison education programmes tightening, Liz explained how it was necessary for Stirling Libraries to negotiate a new service level agreement to supply outreach services for harder-to-reach library users. This allocation of prison funds emerged as a recurrent theme as we listened to how the library is used both as a space for relaxation by the inmates and a site for peer-tutoring and emotional support. Kaye suggested that having a librarian in post at the prison could be considered a drop-in-the bucket in comparison to the overall cost of running a prison. The case for prison libraries being put back on the agenda has arguably been made by successful reading initiatives such as book groups and a Reader-in-Residence project (run for a year at Cornton Vale as well as at Perth and Polmont prison libraries, while HMP Perth continues to fund half a librarian’s post). But the impression conveyed was that more is needed to assist prisoners’ rehabilitation, particularly given the grave social circumstances from which some arrive at the prison and return to after serving short-term sentences.

The group was keen to ask questions about prison library censorship. Liz explained how she adheres to the CILIP rule when selecting library stock: “if it’s in stock, then you can’t censor it.” Nonetheless, ‘True Crime’ was conspicuous in its absence on the well-stocked shelves, although the intention is to protect inmates and newspaper and magazine subscriptions do exist. The ruckus around the UK government’s decision inevitably came to the fore when Liz highlighted the view that the library service (as opposed to donations) should be able to provide additional requests for reading material. The requests Liz receives, like those made in public libraries on any given day, ranged from dream interpretations to baby names to the latest Martina Cole or Patricia Cornwell novel. A preference for female authors in an all-female prison might not have come as a huge surprise although we did also hear about a particularly rambunctious book reading by Alan Bissett in the prison chaplaincy that nearly resulted in the Falkirk author being thrown out of prison.

Of further interest was a discussion around the lack of Internet in prison libraries. Could a list of approved websites not be supplied to give inmates access to online content without compromising prison security? ‘Yes’ was the answer from Kaye, but this idea had been snuffed out by the Scottish Prison Service based on expense. Instead, inmates obtain limited access to digital resources through the prison’s intranet. From a digital participation view-point, this use of ‘white sites’ (Americanised ‘safe sites’) for educational use, appeared to loom large.

With only limited knowledge of how Stirling Libraries are delivering its outreach to vulnerable groups, I had no fixed idea of what to expect from the visit. What I went away with, however, was a fresh perspective of the importance of freely-accessible education for the women at Cornton Vale. I admit to being surprised at the tranquillity of the library and the availability of stock, something for which Liz should be given credit. On the way back to the station, she stressed the importance she places on this as part of her outreach responsibilities. I was struck by Carol’s filial comments about wasted talent and her curiosity to know what becomes of the women once they resume their lives. While working in a number of Glasgow’s community libraries over the past few weeks, questions raised by the visit have stayed with me. How, for example, do public libraries assist in the reintegration of ex-offenders back into society? Although they occasionally appear on the target-user groups within library service development plans, what work is being done to achieve this goal? Just as importantly, is it something that public library staff should be trained to assist with? The relationships with reading being built in prison libraries, exemplified through Cornton Vale’s partnership with Stirling Libraries and Kaye and Carol’s rehabilitation work, might not just encourage ex-offenders to continue a positive relationship with reading on their release, but may also elicit answers to these questions.

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