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Funded by NHS England and HMPPS, this 20-month research project is an evaluation of Shared Reading, a distinct model of reading groups run by The Reader Organisation in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs). PIPEs have been developed jointly by the NHS and HMPPS as part of the Offender Personality Disorder Pathway. They are designed to provide ‘Enabling Environments’, a relational response to working with offenders with varieties of Personality Disorder. The aim is to consolidate the benefits of more formal treatment, and to support prisoners and former prisoners through a pathway of change.

Shared Reading groups, run by The Reader Organisation, are offered weekly in all PIPEs. The Reader Organisation has developed a distinctive model which differs from other reading groups in that literature is read aloud in the group session, rather than in advance. A wide range of participants are therefore able to share the literature, whether or not they are confident readers. Short stories, sections of novels, and poetry are made accessible to participants by a trained Leader, who elicits the discussion of individual and shared responses.

The starting point for the evaluation was a Theory of Change proposed by The Reader Organisation. The theory models how the reading aloud of literature in a supportive environment enables the articulation and integration of profound thought and feeling, and therefore leads to outcomes that include increased well-being, social participation, self-worth, flexibility, agency, and hope, and a sense of connected life and identity. As well as investigating these outcomes, the evaluation explores the processes through which Shared Reading supports change, and its contribution to the overall ethos of PIPEs. 

The Evaluation comprises two phases. Phase 1, which has been completed over the past year, involved extensive fieldwork in three main sites: HMP Send, HMP Wayland, and HMP Warren Hill. The fieldwork consisted mainly of attending and observing Shared Reading groups, informal conversations with participants, group facilitators and staff members, and recorded one-on-one interviews.

On the basis of the qualitative data generated during Phase 1, the research team have developed a new research tool, called the Measuring the Experience of Reading Group (MERG) survey. The MERG consists of 50 statements, and invites a response on a 5-point Likert scale. Its development makes use of ‘ethnography-led measurement’, and it is intended to provide a way of measuring the often nuanced and intricate aspects of the Shared Reading experience which contribute to positive change, with accuracy and subtlety. The statements for the MERG attempt to authentically reflect the language of participants. Direct quotes from participants have been used in several statements, and group members in various sites have been consulted regarding  the overall tone and ‘feel’ of the survey. We used an approach based on Appreciative Inquiry, with the emphasis on tapping into ‘best practices’ and peak moments. At the same time, we incorporated aspects of shared reading that might be uncomfortable – experiences of conflict, dissonance, or uncertainty – but which appear to provide routes to personal psychological growth. Among the main themes covered in the MERG are: Absorption, Recognition, Group Experience, Security, Memory, Flexibility, and Non-literal thinking. The MERG has been received very positively by participants and by The Reader, who plan to use it in the future.

The second phase of the Evaluation is currently underway. This phase involves the administration of the MERG and a separate well-being survey (IOMI) - which will be used to capture change in participants over time - in six prisons, as well as two Approved Premises. Both surveys will be repeated at 6-month intervals. In May, the team hosted at the Institute the Reader’s three-day ‘Read to Lead’ event, in which prison officers are trained to become Shared Reading group facilitators. Eight prison officers attended the training, as well as one member of the research team, Judith Gardom, who is now a qualified Reader Leader.

Throughout our fieldwork period, we have found differences beyond what we expected between the PIPEs across the sites. It was anticipated that scale and turnover, as well as the gender, age and sentence type of the population would make a difference. However, we also became aware of considerable differences in staff cultures, language, levels of trust, and overall atmosphere. All of these contribute to what we now think of as the ‘PIPEyness’ of each PIPE: that is, the extent to which it is a supportive relational environment informed by psychological understanding. Since the subject of the evaluation is the contribution that Shared Reading makes to PIPEs, we see the differences between PIPEs, and the extent to which they embody PIPE values, as an important aspect of the project. We will therefore be using data from observations, interviews and recent MQPL data - where available - to characterise these differences, as part of our Evaluation. The project is being extended by two months in order to incorporate this work, and is due for completion in March 2019.

Project Members:


Prisons Research at Cambridge University


The Prisons Research Centre (PRC) was founded in 2000, under the Directorship of Professor Alison Liebling. The Centre has received funding from a wide range of sources, including the Prison Service/NOMS, the Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, the ESRC, KPMG, the Home Office and UKDS (now Kalyx).

The Cambridge Institute of Criminology Prisons Research Centre aims to provide a stimulating research environment in which a coherent strategy of high quality research can be pursued, and integration between funded and non-funded, and applied and theoretical projects can be facilitated. We investigate how prisons operate, socially, morally and operationally, how they are experienced, and the relationship between these moral and social qualities, and their effects.

Members of the PRC team carry out, individually and collectively, methodologically rigorous and theoretically relevant field-based studies addressing problems of human and social values, punishment practices, and the organisation and effects of aspects of prison life. We strive to forge links with other prisons researchers, scholars in the broader fields of criminology and sociology, and with practitioners. Our vision is to develop a rigorous and person-centred model of social inquiry.

You can read more about the latest projects in our Annual Reports.