One of the things I most enjoy about my job as a writer is travelling round the country meeting people from all different walks of life, and one of my greatest pleasures in life is reading. My love of books is all down to my merchant seaman father, I remember when I was a small child him bringing home from his travels a cardboard theatre, and when I opened the faux crimson velvet curtains, hidden away behind them were the smallest books I had ever seen. The stories were all Aesop fable and fairy tales and I was absolutely entranced. As I got older, the subject matter progressed and I remember pouncing on his bag as soon as he was back from a trip to devour the latest bestseller – Harold Robbins was an eye-opener!
I’m proud to support the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge; a fantastic initiative to encourage less confident adult readers to pick up a book and develop a love of reading, and last year in my role as ambassador, I travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting workplaces, libraries and in particular prisons and YOI who were running the Six Book Challenge. I met some amazing women on these visits including Anne Turner , the librarian at HMP New Hall who is doing a wonderful job running the Six Book Challenge there ; but the person I was bowled over by and the reason why I’m nominating her as my SHEro is Gabrielle Lee, the Governor of HMYOI Deerbolt , a male juveniles’ prison and YOI (Young Offender Institution) up in County Durham. I’ve visited many prisons and YOI over the years and from the moment I set foot inside Deerbolt , I knew the atmosphere there was special, and that’s down to Gabrielle and her fantastic staff , including the indefatigable librarian Christine Foster, who runs the Six Book Challenge there. When I listened to Gabrielle talking to the offenders on my visit last October, what immediately struck, and moved me, me was how much she genuinely cared about these challenging, but very vulnerable offenders. She’s given Deerbolt a strong moral compass and the instinct of all the staff is to deal with people as individuals and to be respectful; it doesn’t mean they don’t have prisoners who are badly behaved, but they view bad behaviour as abhorrent, expect good behaviour and as a result have created a stable and safe environment.
Gabrielle Lee has been Governor since 2012, and during her time there has overseen improvements to the buildings, including new floors, new showers, and improvements to the education department; they have a brilliant library, scores of people are learning to read and they’re getting 40% of people out to work, training, education or employment when they leave. I can personally vouch for the quality of the food being produced by the prisoners learning catering skills - I was treated to a fantastic buffet - and left with a goody bag of delicious food.
I’ve just heard that Gabrielle is leaving later this year - she does so expecting Deerbolt to be ranked in the top 15 of 120 prisons across the country – what an achievement in three years!