Shine A Light

Open the prison gates to literacy

Fairness, justice and common sense demand government commitment to reading and writing in prison

John Podmore
11 February 2012

Fairness, justice and common sense demand government commitment to reading and writing in prison

There is a literacy crisis in our prisons. The problem does not magically arise when people are locked up  (although for some incarceration brings help for the first time). And of  course, there are plenty of people who are illiterate and who never offend.

The prevalence of illiteracy – alongside high levels of poor physical and mental health, drugs and alcohol abuse and unemployment – found amongst the some 88,000 people in prison at any one time, reflects a broader crisis affecting some of our communities, particularly those experiencing poverty and deprivation.

Researchers have long been on a quest, seeking the definitive link between such issues and crime. Does not being able to read and write increase your chances of turning to crime? Or does crime simply proliferate in the socio-economic groups where illiteracy is endemic? And if there is no link, then should we bother educating those in prison when the resources can be spent in local schools and colleges?

In trying to address these questions, we can go round in circles as prison numbers rise and resources cut back. There are, however, some fundamental issues in the debate that we are in danger of losing sight of.

Firstly, prison problems are community problems; highly concentrated, but community problems nevertheless. Imprisonment provides an opportunity to tackle those problems in a very effective way. Most prisoners leave eventually; we can choose whether we take the path that means they leave better than when they came in, or not.

The second problem is one of data. Comprehensive and regularly updated figures for the levels of literacy (and numeracy) in prisons do not exist. The most quoted figures come from the Social Exclusion Unit’s Report of 2000. There are occasional, random studies focusing on specific aspects, especially dyslexia, but regular needs analysis is not done despite the fact that education contracts are re-tendered every three years and such information should surely inform such financial commitments. Individual assessments at local level are done but not aggregated nationally.

The third question we might want to address is whether we consider literacy a human right. UNESCO launched a United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) in 2003.  Its slogan was “Literacy as Freedom” and promoted literacy as being in the interest of all.  Perhaps it is the concept of giving prisoners freedom that has held back the cause of literacy in prison; even when this may be at a cost to us all.

But what about justice and fairness? We are just about hanging on to a justice system predicated on a fair trial. Our approach to terrorism threatens that and poses the age old question of what freedoms do we wish to give up to protect the rest. But the basic tenet of a fair trial is that a defendant understands and can take part in the process. We breach that absolutely with an age of criminal responsibility set at 10 years. The trial process can be bewildering for adults of average intelligence and knowledge. And if even jurors struggle to understand what is happening, what chance does a 10-year-old have or anyone without average reading ability, let alone the illiterate? The summing up of a case by an eloquent judge sentencing the convicted often passes straight over the head of many. This is witnessed regularly by prison officers, quizzed by new residents: “What did I get?”

Add to that the Kafkaesque Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), which even the media cannot grasp and we have a level of injustice, which remains unrecognized as it is grudgingly accepted by thousands languishing in jail. We now have a staggering 13,000 people serving indeterminate sentences about half of whom are subject to the IPP. Their release is dependent upon the Parole Board taking a risk based on information from the prisoner and the prison. Information from the prison emanates primarily from participation in a range of offending behaviour courses; hardly any of which are geared to those who cannot read and write. Add in the additional problems of speech and language, endemic in young offenders according to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy, and we face the prospect of incarceration beyond reason.

And even if we put aside fairness and justice, then what of the question of how we manage and motivate some 88,000 people behind bars? The popular belief is that whilst incarcerated prisoners are incapacitated and compliant. Incapacitation is a myth and compliance is on a knife-edge. Running prisons on cooperation rather than coercion has served us well and prison governors and staff get little credit for keeping the lid on. And when the lid comes off then practitioners suffer and the bureaucrats above react by ‘strengthening the management team’. The risk is that the public – whose vision of the system and life in jail is made hazy by distance and complexity – at best fail to object when decisions are made that do nothing to tackle the original problem. At worse support measures that undermine prisoners’ chances to turn their lives around.

Meanwhile, as prison regimes diminish, prisoners increasingly see nothing for them on the inside and nothing on the outside. Spending 23 hours a day watching daytime TV will not be tolerated for long. Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke’s 40-hour working week may — eventually — engage some. But there is an immediate need to engage and motivate prisoners without throwing money at the problem; not least because there is no money to throw. Promoting literacy, reading and writing has sustained and motivated people since man invented the written word and something to write it down on.

Readers and Writers, one of English PEN's four programmes of work, recognised this and has grappled head on with these problems. It was set up to take writers into institutions where books and literature may be something of a rarity but where individuals are, in many cases, desperate to become readers and often writers too. For the past 20 years Readers and Writers has taken authors into schools, prisons, detention centres, refugee centres and children’s centres. Thanks to the generosity of publishers writers’ visits are preceded by free books for the participants to use in sessions and to keep. For so many of the people taking part one of the most important gifts of the programme is gaining the ability to tell their own story; to make sense of their lives through writing. For many others just being able to see themselves as readers is a revelation.

So let’s choose. Are we so terrified that literacy – and the work and tools needed to increase prisoners’ ability to read and write — represents a freedom too far? Or do we want to accept that literacy is a human right, a prerequisite for changing lives for the better?

Government policy to date has relied, as it has in schools, on testing and measurement, ignoring context and the needs of real people. There is a world out there knocking on the prison gates: PEN Readers and Writers, Prisoners Education Trust, and the Shannon Trust to name but a few. Let them in. Not grudgingly, ad hoc or as bid candy for the corporates, but as part of a Government-led literacy strategy involving the community to improve the lot of prisoners and the communities to which they return.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData