Last week we set off to Port Augusta Prison to deliver the first batch of children’s books for the Magnolia Book Project. To be completely honest, getting this far felt like an achievement in its own right. As anyone who has ever worked in corrections knows, it is one thing to have an idea. It’s quite another to actually get a project up and running! It was the support and advice of Port Augusta prison staff that made it possible to introduce the project in a maximum-security facility.

Our drive

We set off from Adelaide early in the morning. Zoe (from Pegi Williams book shop and a University of Adelaide Criminology Honours student) and I were both excited about the day ahead. When I talked to Zoe about prisons (and I have visited a few in my time) I was reminded what a closed world it is. Most people have few opportunities to meet people who live and work in our prisons.

Our conversation also gave me pause for thought. Prisons are simply not designed to be places of compassion or healing (the guiding principles of the Magnolia project). Prisons serve to isolate and punish. Even small things (like being able to send a book to a child) can help people in prison by maintaining family relationships and sustaining hope for the future.

Our visit

After arriving earlier than expected, we went through security screening and Covid testing. Zoe and I entered and toured the prison and met some of the staff. We were fortunate to meet most of the rehabilitation programs team. We talked about the Book Project and they seemed enthusiastic and confident that it would be well-received by people in the prison.

Zoe and I also met some of education staff. They told us that they would be happy to provide literacy support and help men write longer letters to their children.

Staff invited us to join one of the programs to talk about the project. The program involved a group of Aboriginal men convicted of violent offences. Many men were interested in what we told them. A few even put their hand up to take part which was exciting! The group reminded us that it was important to recognise kinship relationships. So, while the Magnolia Project is available for mums and dads, it is also for other significant adults in children’s lives. Grandparents. Uncles and aunties. Even siblings.

No-one we met could see anything but good coming from our project.

Our thoughts

So, where did we leave things? Well, the first set of books, greeting cards, and packaging has now been safely delivered to the prison. The Magnolia Book Project will be advertised within the prison. Book packs will be sent out to children over the next few weeks. We met prison staff and people in prison who are aware of the Magnolia Project and who are excited about it starting.

An article about our project will appear in the Razorwire, a magazine which goes out to everyone in the prison. We hope this will mean that requests for our books will come in thick and fast, as the word spreads.

By the time we arrived back in Adelaide, it felt like a long day. But it was a day that left Zoe and I feeling that the Magnolia Project will make a difference. Sincere thanks to the Port Augusta Prison staff and prisoners for making this possible. Thank you too for making it such an interesting and productive day.

We have started!