I don’t read as much as I used to. Like so many people I know, my patterns of reading experienced a drop off; perhaps due to technology, laziness, or general distraction.

I have joined a book club, one in which everyone reads the same book every month to then discuss it. My brother goes to the same club in a different city. Sometimes we talk about the book over the phone, which has been cool.

There is a vast difference though, between being aware of the importance of reading and that translating to completing actual books. There is such an avalanche, such an overkill of information and ideas out there that most of them don’t get more than a cursory glance. I can’t be the only one. But I am trying to turn it around.

“We are not only what we read, we are how we read.” Maryanne Wolf

I’m the Co-ordinator of the Red Cross Prison Support Program here in Tasmania, and I notice that many people in prison pass the time reading books or the newspapers. Some who arrive at prison not knowing how to read end up learning just to pass the time, although some of the same people may find writing and spelling more difficult.

Reading widely, becoming immersed, exploring ideas deeply, and finding inspiration – this is an opportunity that can be taken up almost anywhere, even behind the razor wire.

I am usually in the Education area, so maybe my perception is skewed. There are certainly literacy issues with the prison population, but I find that many incarcerated people enjoy reading and have a good grasp of current events or have a favourite book series.

Another explanation may be that the lack of phones, social media, internet, Netflix and so on, causes people to actually spend the time to read a full book or article. As opposed to those ‘on the outside’ – who are probably all guilty of skim-reading, falling into hyperlink rabbit-holes, jumping from webpage to webpage, and scrolling through their news feed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I end up having really good conversations with the prison group. There is time and space to explore opinions and concepts. Reading does offer those who are locked-up a pathway toward something beyond the drudgery of the yard – a way to focus, to concentrate, to sharpen up their analysis. So the discussion goes further than the headlines and soundbites, and towards the bigger picture and the real issues.

Mark Edmundson, author of Why Read explains that we are socialised once, from family, teachers, and so on, and for some those values work. But others, “for whatever reason, just don’t fit right into the established values”. He goes on to say that one of the best ways forward is that they sometimes become obsessed readers, reading until they find people who see the world in the same way they do, and “they feel as if they are home, with a second set of parents, a second set of teachers, and can start to see the world for themselves”.

I remember hearing another interview with a novelist, and he expressed a similar sentiment. He said that as a young man he knew he didn’t agree with the values of the society he was in, but wanted to be a part of that society nonetheless. I could relate to that myself.

I think a lot of people who are locked in Risdon Prison are re-examining some of their choices, and many say that they are feeling that same way.  Although our circumstances and residences may be different, I sometimes feel like we are all trying to break away to some degree, and find some sense of home.

“I’d forgotten how beautiful the world was. When I first went to prison the outside world held no attraction for me. Now I looked out with desire. I wanted to take part. I wanted to live out there, like a regular, decent law abiding citizen”. ~ Erwin James, Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope ~

Keith Hinde is a community service practitioner with 10 years’ experience in housing and homelessness support. He currently works as the Co-ordinator of the Red Cross Prison Support Program, a pre-release program in Risdon Prison. He is interested in narrative criminology and the process of desistance from crime. Keith is currently completing a Professional Honours in Human Service Practice through UTAS. Here, he writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.