26 November 2012
When Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize the author probably imagined it would lead him to contemporary literature's top table, instead it has sent him to prison.
Kelman's novel, a reaction to the murder of Damilola Taylor and set on a grim South London housing estate rife with gangs, crime and the benighted side of the immigrant experience, made him perfectly suited for an unusual assignment. On Monday October 8th Kelman found himself in Lewes prison, a fortnight later he went to HMP Brixton. Kelman though is not a malefactor and his presence was unrelated to crime. He went to jail to launch two Booker Prize Foundation projects – Books Unlocked and One Book, One Prison.
The initiatives are designed to get prisoners reading. Some 48 per cent of the prison population have a reading level below that expected of 11-year-olds and frequently come from a background where education is little valued: 30 per cent of prisoners were regular truants and fully half the male prison population were at some point excluded from school. Kelman is well aware of this mental deprivation: “When I was growing up one of my saving graces was my love of books. That helped me escape from the bleaker aspects of my environment. It gave me the aspiration to get ahead, get an education and make the best of myself.”
Pigeon English is therefore the perfect book by which to introduce prisoners to literature and the hope is that the experience of reading it will be a start to further investigation. The Booker Prize Foundation is giving copies of the novel to the participating prisons (Lewes, Brixton and Swaleside) and with the Books Unlocked project reading groups led by the institutions' librarians will discuss and comment on the experience. Prisoners will complete a reading journal recording their thoughts and be awarded a certificate of achievement on finishing. It is hoped that those participating will act as “reading champions” and encourage other inmates to read more.
With One Book, One Prison – taking place at Lewes – everyone from the Governor, prison officers and support staff to the inmates themselves will be given a copy of the book for a communal reading experience. National Prison Radio, which broadcasts to 50,000 prisoners, will be featuring Pigeon English as its Book at Bedtime. The Foundation is also giving copies of the book to more than 20 other prisons around the UK.
If Kelman is worried that inflicting Pigeon English on prisoners will be seen as punishment then he isn't letting on. He has stated in the past that his experience shows that “if you are prepared to work at something, your background shouldn't hold you back”. His book and the Foundation's initiatives should therefore be seen as offering prisoners a get out of jail card.
You can watch a video of Stephen Kelman’s visit to HMP Lewes here.
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