Tag Archives: #GLTU13

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.

#GLTU13 – Cornton Vale

1 Jul

For GLTU13 on 10th June, a group of us visited the library at Cornton Vale Prison in Stirling. Security was obviously a lot tighter than on previous tweetups, and we had to leave phones and other technology in lockers before we went in, so no tweets and no pictures! However, Jennifer Horan (@Miss_Horan7) has given her impressions of the visit below.

For GLTU13, a tweet-up without tweets, seven of us visited HMP & YOI Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only all-women prison. We were shown round the Learning Block by Liz Moffat, Community Outreach Librarian with Stirling Council, whose duties include managing Cornton Vale’s library, and Kaye Stewart, Learning Centre Manager. The Learning Block includes a kitchen for cookery classes, a salon for hairdressing courses, an ICT suite, a classroom and, of course, a library.

We met a group of women inmates who were participating in a book group and were reading Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. This was obviously a beneficial activity to the women, especially one who told us that before she was sent to prison she couldn’t read, but she has now learned and is a member of the book group. Poor reading skills and illiteracy are very often issues for prisoners. We then spent time in the library, looking at the resources and asking Liz and Kaye about how the library runs.

Although Liz visits the library as part of her remit to ensure it is in order and can run well, it is mainly staffed by a group of prisoners. Along with a wide range of fiction titles, including new publications, there is also (a smaller) range of non-fiction and audio books, and a number of foreign language books in a variety of languages. Some of the women imprisoned do not have English as a first language, so foreign language books accommodate this, though Liz pointed out that many of the women do not have the literacy skills to be able to read. The library has a budget for book buying from Stirling Council. Liz also spoke to us about the issues surrounding stock selection in prison libraries. While no librarian likes banning books, they must follow the rules of the prison, and there are some books that just can’t be stocked for the safety and well-being of inmates and staff, for example, recent local true crime books and books featuring facts about unacceptable prison behaviour.

The library has three computers for prisoners’ use, though there is no internet access. This is a complex issue for the prison system, as so much information required for learning and gaining qualifications, including Open University courses, in which the women are encouraged to participate, is available online. There are plans to allow prisons access to the internet in the future; however, these ideas have been in the planning for some time.

We were very impressed with the library and its contents; the couches and light colours of the room express comfort and make a visit to the library appealing, but thankfully we were free to leave the locks and keys and return to the comfort of our homes.

If Jennifer’s account has sparked your interest, I also recommend this post on Me and my big mouth which was written in response to the ban on sending books to prisoners in England, and is full of useful information on reader development in prisons.

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