Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

NEIL BARCLAY (HMP Thameside)

NEIL BARCLAY (HMP Thameside)

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AWARD WINNER 2015-16: Neil is a civilian librarian at HMP Thameside. Nominated by prisoners, and described by a colleague as “our library superstar”, Neil wins his Award for the outstanding dedication, skill and creativity he has shown in transforming the prison’s library into a dynamic learning and resource centre, much valued by prisoners and staff, and described as “the envy of other prisons”. [This Award is sponsored by Novus (The Manchester College Group).]

Neil BarclayNeil Barclay works for Serco as a civilian librarian at HMP Thameside, and wins his Butler Trust Award for transforming Thameside’s library into one that’s been described as “the envy of other prisons which have been operating for many years.”

It’s fitting that his Lead Nominator, a serving prisoner called Anton*, writes at length and with such eloquence about the difference Neil has made as “a very dedicated man who made our library progress, and who works restlessly to develop and enhance his newly titled Learning and Resource Centre to engage prisoners.”

As Anton reports, Neil “could easily have left the library in the state it was when he found it. He took the job as prison librarian whilst doing a master’s degree and decided he wasn’t happy providing prisoners with no more than a trolley half filled with old torn books and a few outdated magazines with little or no interest to man or beast.”

Since Neil started his work as a librarian in July 2013, says Anton, “he has improved the services far beyond a standard prison library. Under his leadership, there was a clear increase in prisoner engagement and library usage and also in the initiatives offered. He decided that rather than shy away from the challenge of delivering a mediocre book lending service to a near thousand impatient men, he set to work expanding the room with shelves and removing partitions, ordering books in hundreds favouring genres such as crime fiction, a prisoners’ favourite… Eventually he had amassed a commanding library of choices ranging from science fiction, easy reads for the dyslexic and those finding reading difficult, education in all forms from computing to languages, practical guides to trades plus maths and English learning companions and fantasy authors.”

Neil’s input didn’t stop there. “The environment is much more than a typical prison library and Neil is doing outstanding work in making it a relaxed medium available for when prisoners need to pull themselves out of the occasionally aggressive environment on the wing. At the same time Neil pushes the library initiatives forward through all the channels and resources he has at his disposal. Neil is a firm believer of ‘using time’ not just ‘doing time.’”

Neil won the Serco Employee of the Year Award in 2015, adds Anton, who goes on: “We took the time to write this nomination just to show Neil that his efforts have not gone unnoticed and someone as modest as him who is doing tremendous work for prisoner’s wellbeing should be recognised. Neil works with us daily and comes into the prison at the weekends to offer yet more sessions, which are popular amongst prisoners who enjoy reading, at the same time giving us the opportunity to get out of our cells (which can be very lonely at times). He will work with us to introduce more ideas on how to educate and engage prisoners and how to make the Library a more inviting and non-hostile environment.”

As Anton relates, “Most folk would have smugly congratulated themselves on their forward thinking development of this exclusive public service but it was only the beginning. When Neil recognised that many foreign inmates were struggling with English, or any prisoner was struggling with simply reading and writing he treated this as an opportunity to challenge a major failing in the system.”

Anton describes “the experience of this exciting environment we participate in” as “unlike any other prison library I have been to. We feel Neil is an excellent prison librarian and appreciate the facilities he offers us. He sees the library as the ‘heart of the prison’, a tranquil oasis which reconnects us with the thing we love. Neil says that books are important ‘medicine for the brain’. Neil has enthused people to engage in education, and recognises achievements by introducing an awards ceremony which is hosted each month by the Director to which prisoner’s families are also invited to celebrate with us, which makes them proud.”

Neil has also started a guest speaker programme, says, Anton, “to inspire us”, with well-known visitors including Russell Brand, Andy McNab, Dreda Say Mitchell, Derek Martin, David Dein, Sadiq Khan, and Jonathan Aitkin. Neil also works closely with other key partners, charities, and volunteers. “Visitors to our Library will understand all that we are saying and have an insight into how we feel. The fact that Neil made us believe in educating ourselves allows us to realise that there is more to us than a life of crime; his work has an enormous impact on a very large number of prisoners that have been or will be based in this very busy local London prison.”

Anton concludes “All in all we truly believe Neil Barclay deserves an award from the Butler Trust for his tremendous work in supporting and helping prisoners. He is an inspirational example to all other prison libraries, for his dedication and transforming our library into so much more. What Neil did with the old musty room in the education block was a testament to how adversity breeds opportunity. Where most people would see a futile vocation, a room with little light and bars on the windows, Neil saw a vast opening and opportunity to help change lives of an often forgotten group in society. We have a choice to do nothing or make the most of every resource at our disposal to better our lives; Neil has allowed us to do this.”

The Local Butler Trust Champion Sarah Chambers, Senior Management Governance at Thameside, describes Neil as “our library superstar. He set up the library single-handedly and has raised its profile beyond everyone’s expectations. He supports accessibility for all and his enthusiasm for his work rubs off on prisoners and staff alike.”

She adds that “the library has now been transformed into a hive of activity. The once-bare walls are now decorated with colourful murals by art students, posters are framed on the wall outside and comfy sofas fill once empty spaces. The four 75 minute general sessions held are booked days in advance to cater for the number of keen prisoners desperate to get into what is now being considered as the best place to ‘find yourself’.”

Neil has introduced a raft of initiatives. These include The Prisoners Advice Service, a charity who visit monthly to give personalised legal advice sessions specializing in non-criminal law. Neil reports that although most of their communication is done through telephone calls and letters, “many prisoners are eager to book face-to-face sessions with these advisors and this is reflected by our schedules filling up weeks in advance.”

Another initiative is the Shannon Trust Toe-by-Toe Reading Plan, where a group of trained prison mentors assist prisoners struggling with their literacy needs in twenty-minute doses. When the learners have grasped a level of understanding, they are invited to join a reading group hosted by Prisoner Reading Groups. These involve, as Neil explains, volunteers “visiting our library to host a series of book clubs, ranging from light-hearted Quick Read titles to advanced crime fiction novels from the likes of Martina Cole (a favourite in our library), Val McDermit and Stephen Leather.”

Other developments include Story Book Dads, which allows prisoners to bond with their children by reading stories to their children in the form of CDs and DVDs. These are sent to the prisoners’ families so that children can connect with their dads visually and with story telling. The Six Book Challenge, meanwhile, challenges prisoners to read six pieces – ranging from books to newspaper articles – and review them before receiving a prize in the form of a mini dictionary, amongst other incentives. “The mini dictionary serves many as a useful tool in developing their reading and writing skills”, adds Neil.

Nor does the list end there, with Anton citing “Creative Writing, Relaxation Music [and] competitions ranging from crosswords, Sudoku, chess [to] backgammon to name a few, a DVD channel, a film club [and] a newsletter produced by prisoners.”

Former prisoner and author Jonathan Robinson is familiar with Neil’s work. He explains that “since serving a well deserved prison sentence in 2011, I have been working at raising awareness in prison reform – and what we could be doing to encourage inmates – via education whilst they are in jail. HMP Thameside is a prison I have visited a lot – mainly to demonstrate the tremendous effects of encouragement to inmates.”

Jonathan notes that all of the VIP visitors he’s talked to “remarked to me after their visits how fantastic Librarian Neil is to his charges. Prison librarians tend to be above the mark across the penal estate, but Neil takes this to another level. His remarkable passionate leadership, encouragement, energy and enthusiasm towards prisoners is out of this world. I, and my guests, have seen inmates faces light up after a steer from Neil. His contribution to prison education and rehabilitation is out of this world. The whole prison estate could learn a great deal from Neil’s ethos.”

John Biggin, Director at Thameside, concurs, saying that Neil “can be summed up with just one word and that is Inspirational. He has taken what in many environments is a service taken for granted and through his passion and determination has transformed it into something that is both inspirational and transformational.”

John continues, “I firmly believe that teaching and encouraging prisoners to read is one of the most fundamentally life changing things a prison can do and this is Neil’s passion. The work that Neil is doing on a daily basis with those prisoners with low literacy (up to 100 prisoners at any time engaging with the Toe by Toe programme) is just incredible and the sheer scale of the service he provides changes the life chances of so many who pass through our gates. This is enough to be proud of in and of itself, but Neil’s vision significantly exceeds the normal boundaries. The fact that the Library users have come together to nominate him, and that the nomination is made by one of our Peer Mentors speaks for itself.”

Neil is described by John as “constantly searching for new innovations and ways of enriching the lives of those incarcerated through the medium of the written word”, who concludes “he continues every day to exceed all of our expectations and it is with immense pride that I commend this nomination to the awarding panel.”

Neil describes himself as “very proud to be leading on these initiatives which have expanded our agenda to make the Library more than just a book-lending service. I am also immensely grateful for the many charities, volunteers and speakers who have donated their time into enhancing our Library and therefore the wellbeing of the prisoners who use the service.”

He describes how “heartening it is to see those who are shy about expressing opinions, opening up and growing in confidence to the extent that they are comfortable revealing their vulnerable side to the rest of the [Prisoner Reading] Group. I believe this initiative is important to prisoners as it stimulates an exchange of views, encouraging their communication with one another, while exposing them to new material.” Neil believes these discussions “are highly influential in improving prisoners’ social skills which is beneficial to those with aggression issues and a key asset towards rehabilitation.”

Neil reports that when well-known people visit the library to take part in book review sessions or talk about their lives, “what transpires from these talks always gives the inmates ‘food for thought’. Andy McNab was particularly inspiring, not only for his SAS exploits, but for the fact that he learned to read and write in prison – something many in the room identified with. Other guest appearances, such as that of Martina Cole, have encouraged many prisoners to write about their experiences which many have claimed to be a therapeutic and worthwhile exercise.”

Neil has further ambitions for his librarianship, including developing new collaborative partnerships and, remarkably, reports that “we are in the early stages of planning a literary festival following a well received celebratory event. This will be an exciting and innovative opportunity as currently only one other prison has attempted to set up a literary festival within the prison environment.”

[*Names of prisoners have been changed to protect identity.]

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