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Graeme Brown: Literate prisoners teaching illiterate prisoners

Graeme_brown Graeme Brown is the former PPC for Ashton-under-Lyne and a volunteer in Wandsworth Prison with The Shannon Trust.

There are now more than 82,000 people in prison in the UK, higher than ever before. I seem to have read the Headline, “Prison Population hits new high” on a monthly basis for the last year. Anne Owers, The Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that the prison system is oscillating between, “panic stations to just about containing crisis.” Our prisons are bursting at the seams, thousands of prisoners live in over-crowded jails and thousands of prisoners are being released early under the government’s Early Release Scheme. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is pressurising Magistrates to use non-custodial sentences in a bid to avert the crisis. 

So, what is the answer? Some, such as the current Lord Chief Justice, and his predecessor, would like to see sentences passed match the resources available, which suggests sentences passed down by judges and magistrates should be based as much on the number of prison places available as on the seriousness of the crime committed. This cannot be right. Criminals must be imprisoned based on the seriousness of their crime, not on whether there is sufficient space in our prisons. 

In my opinion, if we are to protect the public properly, which is, after all the primary role of the state, we need to build more prisons, as David Cameron and Nick Herbert announced a Conservative government would do this week. That is the simple part of the answer. The second part of the answer is not so simple. Prison works when criminals are in prison because the public are protected from them. Where prison does not work so well is what happens when prisoners are released. Prisons in Britain do not rehabilitate offenders very well. Although the prison population is around 80,000, because thousands of prisoners are given sentences that last a lot less than a year, it is likely that 100,000 people will be released from our prisons this year. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, 2/3 can be expected to re-offend within 2 years. If we want to reduce crime, and stop our prison population exploding in the long-term, we must reduce re-offending. But how? 

One part of the solution would be to ensure that every prisoner leaving prison was able to read. It is estimated that up to 2/3 of prisoners in the UK have no functional literacy skills. That means that they are unable to read letters from their family, or letters from their lawyers. It means that they are unable to gain one of the many qualifications that are available in prison which require any kind of written work. Losing contact with family and friends, having no skills that would help them find a job, and being unable to read the forms that explain the benefits they are entitled to, and how to claim them, all increase the likelihood of a released prisoner re-offending. 

Traditional prison education services have failed to tackle illiteracy, as they are classroom based and assume an ability to read and write. Illiterate prisoners, by definition have had bad experiences with formal education. Many illiterate prisoners do not want to be in a classroom with others for fear of being made to look stupid in front of fellow prisoners. 

But prisons simply do not have the financial resources to pay for hundreds of teachers to provide specialist one-to-one tuition to illiterate prisoners. One abundant resource that prisons do have though is prisoners. If 2/3 of prisoners are functionally illiterate, then 1/3 must be functionally literate. The Shannon Trust, a charity working with the Prison Service in prisons to tackle illiteracy, uses a cheap but effective way of improving literacy rates. It helps literate prisoners teach illiterate prisoners how to read.

Using a simple phonic based system, called Toe by Toe, originally developed to help dyslexic children learn to read, an illiterate prisoner can be taught to read by a literate prisoner in as little as six months by following a highly structured Toe by Toe Manual, (provided by the Shannon Trust), in short but frequent one to one sessions.

The benefits of this are enormous. The boost to someone’s self-esteem that comes from being able to read is huge. The boost to someone’s self-esteem that comes from teaching someone to read, and having a positive impact on that person’s life, is equally valuable. 

The Shannon Trust has successful schemes operating in around half of prisons in the UK and there are currently around 1,000 prisoners learning to read nationwide. Its aim is to be on every wing of every prison in the country, and to work with the Probation Service to provide continuity in the months after release if a prisoner has not completed the courses. Every illiterate inmate should have the chance, and incentive to learn to read in prison – it may be their best chance to turn around their lives.

Literacy is of course not the only area where we need to work with prisoners - drug rehabilitation and mental health are two obvious areas that we need to focus on as well if we are to produce a marked drop in re-offending. And it is hard to see how this can be done effectively with prisons as over-crowded as they are now. But if we are able to work with prisoners so that they leave prison able to read, free from drug addiction, and with any mental health problems diagnosed and treated, then we may truly be able to say, in the fullest sense, that prison works.


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