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I have been introduced to books that I would probably not have chosen, which would have been my loss.” 

Participant, HMYOI Birmingham

About the programme

Books Unlocked is a reading initiative targeting enjoyment of reading and access to quality literature, working through prison and young offender institution library reading groups, school, college, public library and community reading groups.

Since 2012, Books Unlocked has been supporting young offenders and prisoners to increase their enjoyment and frequency of reading by offering them the opportunity to read, discuss and own Man Booker Prize-shortlisted titles. 

We work closely with National Prison Radio, a free radio service broadcasting directly into prisons and young offender institutions across England and Wales to serialise audio books of selected texts as well as broadcasting author interviews. 

A survey conducted by NPR found that 39% of listeners who heard the Books Unlocked show said it had encouraged them to read or write more.

National Prison Radio recently launched a new app, Straightline, which is designed to support newly-released prisoners. The app contains seven short films covering different issues relevant to former prisoners, one of which was created as part of our Books Unlocked programme. 

I  feel a lot happier, calmer, enthusiastic, hopeful and positive!”

Participant, HMP Thameside

Community model

Since 2012 we have worked hard to expand and improve books unlocked, providing a greater range of literature and reaching a wider audience.

In 2015/16 we expanded Books Unlocked to work across whole communities, through teachers, librarians and other community leads, to reach young people, young offenders, prisoners and community reading groups, encouraging a shared approach to reading for enjoyment. 

In 2016/17 we will continue to deliver the community model of Books Unlocked in five key areas and we will also offer support to further prisons and Young Offender Institutions through provision of books and facilitating author visits, where possible.

Read about the history of Books Unlocked

Linking together groups of students, young offenders, adult prisoners and members of the local community to form such a diverse reading group is, I think, unique. A chance for everyone to share their opinions with people from all walks of life, many of whom are separated from the wider world, desperately seeking to re-establish themselves within their community. Books Unlocked gives them that chance to be heard.”

Alan Smith, Reader Development Advisor for Staffordshire Prison Libraries


Books Unlocked enjoys the support of Man Booker Prize-shortlisted authors each year. These excellent writers will frequently visit prison reading groups as well as recording interviews for National Prison Radio. The following authors are taking part in Books Unlocked this year:

  • Julian Barnes 
  • Jim Crace
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Stephen Kelman
  • Yann Martel
  • Hisham Matar
  • David Mitchell
  • Neel Mukerjee
  • Ali Smith
  • Patrick deWitt

You can read some quotes from our authors that they have sent us about the power of reading here


Our latest evaluation shows that prisoners and young offenders are reading more frequently and more widely after taking part in the programme.

It also highlighted that the project has positive outcomes beyond literacy, demonstrating the wider impact reading for enjoyment can have on wellbeing and social skills. 

Read more about our evaluation.

I feel privileged to be a part of Books Unlocked, a truly innovative and highly successful initiative. Every visit I have made to a prison or YOI has been educational and enriching to me, and it is inspiring to see, on the frontline, how transformative literature can be. In promoting self-analysis, providing a means of escape, and of spreading empathy, there are few other tools as effective as a book.”

Stephen Kelman, Author of Pigeon English

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Patron of the National Literacy Trust, recently expressed support for the Books Unlocked project in her speech at the Man Booker Prize ceremony in 2016.


Books Unlocked is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation. You can read about their work by following the link below.

Find out more

Man Booker Prize Shortlisted author, Stephen Kelman, was filmed talking to prisoners about his book, 'Pigeon English'.

Watch video

Our partner National Prison Radio's app, Straightline is designed to support newly-released prisoners through their first week of release.

This film was created for Straightline as part of our Books Unlocked programme.

Watch video

The National Literacy Trust is a registered charity no. 1116260 and a company limited by guarantee no. 5836486 registered in England and Wales and a registered charity in Scotland no. SC042944.
Registered address: 68 South Lambeth Road, London SW8 1RL.