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News from PrisonerActionNet

Films Inside: Fatherhood in films at HMPs Brinsford, Featherstone and Oakwood

Alan Smith, from Staffordshire Library Service, writes about organising the Films Inside project. 

This is the text of an article published in Inside Time in September 2019

An alarm bell sounds at HMP Brinsford. Every radio in the prison echoes the call, including mine. Fourteen heads in the library turn to me, the librarian, with a look of intrigue and excitement ‘It’s a fight,’ someone says and three teenagers thump the desk with their fists in delight. The rest of the group roll their eyes or fake a yawn and continue browsing their books.

‘Alarm bell upper corridor Education’ Outside the library door we hear the thundering of a multitude of feet.

‘Did you find that book on Astrology boss?’

I finally turn the radio down. The effects of the alarm have subsided; everyone is back reading.

HMP Brinsford Library is crammed floor to ceiling with books. Fourteen men make the place seems full. Newspapers are avidly read; driving theory questions tackled on computers and shelves rifled for the elusive book to make time go faster. There’s a murmur of conversation and banter but something is always bubbling. In prisons you can never take your eye off the stove for too long.

I first stepped through these gates as a librarian expecting to stay a few years. Although I had no prison library experience, I am an author with a passion for reading nurtured since childhood. My few years turned into 12 and the job has not proved under-the-radar! I have appeared on C4’s ‘The Secret Millionaire’, been interviewed by Radio 4, Financial Times and The Bookseller, spoken at conferences across the UK and raised my head above the parapet during the notorious ‘Book Ban’. I wrote a blog with publisher Scott Pack to emphasise the overwhelmingly positive effects of books on prisoners. The website received so many ‘hits’ when the blog was published that it crashed!

That day I took a phone call from Gerard Lemos, then the Vice-president of the British Board of Film Classification: ‘Was there any scope for establishing a film club inside a prison library?’

After I put the phone down I realised I had just agreed enthusiastically (as a life-long movie fan) without considering the implications. How would we screen the films? Who would grant us permission? Which prisoners would take part and how would they be chosen? Etc…

But I’d been here before. In 2014 I was asked by the National Literacy Trust and The Booker Foundation if we could encourage a group of Young Offenders to read a Booker title. Books Unlocked is now a major feather in the cap of our prison library service and I helped to create the community model of that project now being rolled out.

Films are a hazy mirror of reality with enormous power to educate without stigma. The two goals of Films Inside were to introduce participants to films and genres they might not seek out and to encourage them to view those films through the lens of reflection about their own lives, past, present and future. Five films were shown over three months, spanning several genres and decades linked by the theme of fatherhood: the original Father of the Bride, the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Creed (one of the Rocky series), Wild Bill and Father and Daughter (an Oscar-winning animated short).

The prison libraries at HMP Oakwood, HMP Brinsford and HMP Featherstone screened the films and worked with the prisons to select participants; mostly fathers themselves. Security was assessed and checks carried out. A group of between 10 and fifteen participants watched the films and the library provided further reading. Lucy Brett of BBFC, Mark Reid of BFI and Leah Byrne of Picturehouse

Cinemas selected the films and provided notes for librarians facilitating the discussions after watching. Dexter Fletcher, the director of Wild Bill recorded a podcast played at the screenings and Michael Dudock de Wit, the Dutch director of Father and Daughter, visited one prisons and the public library.

As well as the prison libraries, we also screened and discussed the films in a public library, so that thoughts, reviews and opinions could be shared between participants in the prisons and the local community. The project certainly succeeded in encouraging this participant to think about a wider range of movies, "I absolutely loved this and it has made me start to watch films properly.” And the theme of fatherhood proved resonant for this participant, "this project has given me a lot of pause for thought about being a dad. I'm not sure if I would have thought about all these issues by myself or even just through reading."

Participants in prison were genuinely moved that their opinion was valued beyond the prison walls. Louise Mason, the library supervisor comments: “The young offenders often feel that there is a major barrier between themselves and the wider community. Within the prison they are often asked to be involved in projects that are very much 'in-house' projects. Films Inside offered them an opportunity to share their views with members of the public and to hear the opinions of the community group as well as older prisoners. For many of these offenders they had never been part of such a group and the change in their behaviour became clear very quickly just from sitting quietly and watching a film they needed to comment on."

The link made with the community proved powerful both ways. This member of the public certainly had their perceptions changed. "I was a little sceptical at the start but I have been pleasantly surprised by the reactions to the films by the prisoners and this has helped to change my (clearly wrong) first impressions of how I thought they would react."

Films Inside doesn’t cost much, just the price of a few DVDs. We hope every prison library will eventually participate. Our next selection of films will be on the theme of long distance relationships. If you are in prison or work in a prison library and would like to receive the materials and be part of Films Inside go to www.lemosandcrane.co.uk for details of how to get involved.

 

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