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Reading Between the Bars

Patrick Ward By Patrick Ward Published on November 4, 2015

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It’s thought that 60 per cent of UK prisoners have basic literacy problems. In most sections of society, that would be considered a crisis. The ability to read is a central aspect of rehabilitation, for everything from finding a job to renting a flat. In prison itself, understanding letters from lawyers or notice boards becomes a challenge. Even those with basic literacy skills might struggle to find escape through a novel, or learn a skill using a textbook.

The broader social picture of the prison system sheds some light onto why this is a problem. According to a 2012 Ministry of Justice report, 47 per cent of prisoners had no qualifications, compared to 15 per cent in the general population. The share of prisoners who had been permanently excluded from school was also huge, at 41 per cent for men, 30 per cent for women and 52 per cent for young offenders. And between 20 to 30 per cent of prisoners have learning difficulties.

One group that has succeeded in encouraging literacy, through a scheme of mentoring by fellow prisoners, is the Shannon Trust, which helps around 5,000 prisoners a year. David Ahern, its chief executive officer, said that the key was engagement. “There is a real sense of deep exclusion on behalf of prisoners, understandably, so we have a reading model where we get prisoners who can read to support those who cannot, simply,” he said.

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Credits: The Day via NY Times

“Somebody that feels disaffected by the learning journey will possibly take help from another prisoner when they would not accept it from a member of staff or somebody in the educational establishment, so we are there very much to compliment what is going on in the prison.”

But Ahern said that this was still only “scratching the surface”. “People don’t really know the scale of poor reading in prison, which is rather unfortunate to say the least, but it is a substantial problem,” he said. “We guess that there are around 30,000 people in prison who either can’t read or have very poor reading skills.”

The Directorate of Public Sector Prisons (DPSP), the body that oversees UK prisons, has welcomed the work of Shannon, and launched the National Reading Network in 2013 in an attempt to join up more effectively with the service. A DPSP statement to Bookwitty said, “It was agreed that every prison should provide a local framework including prison officer time, to support the scheme to enable volunteers, prisoner mentors and learners, to carry out peer reading activities each week.

“The Trust has reported an increase in both learners and mentors across the prison estate over the past year, with reports of 4,463 learners accessing the scheme during 2014, an increase of 34 per cent on the previous year. Mentor numbers also rose by 9 per cent.”

But despite these attempts to turn things around, they come at a time when cuts to prison budgets are starting to bite. A smaller workforce has meant, say critics, less time spent helping prisoners. A 2013 report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons said that “the quantity and quality of purposeful activity [such as education and training] in which prisoners are engaged [has] plummeted”.

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Tyler Anderson via National Post

The director of campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform, Andrew Neilson, said, “I think the biggest problem really is that the prisons themselves are going through a period of austerity. It’s not unusual in public services, but prisons were never really a Rolls Royce public service in the first place, and the cuts that we’ve seen, in the region of 30 to 40 per cent of front line staffing, has had an impact on a whole range of things”.

“There’s been a rise in suicides, a rise in assaults, and there has been a real dip in what’s called ‘purposeful activity’, that can be work, education or training. There aren’t the staff to unlock the cell doors and get the prisoners out and doing things. I think many prisoners who can’t read, or find it hard to read, do need to be getting out of their cells and into classrooms to get those kind of programmes.”

David Ahern agreed that understaffing was an issue. “I think the Prison Service would love to do more and there’s much more that could be done,” he said. “But they are working under pretty extreme circumstances. Budget levels have been cut and prison numbers are going up, so you have an absolute conundrum, how do we maintain the same level of support, with less money and more prisoners? And actually the reality of it is, they don’t.”

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It’s a view also held by the Prison Officers Association. Spokesperson Glyn Travis said, “The POA have the same concerns as other organisations in that access to reading materials is being restricted due to staff cuts, staffing shortfalls and as a result restricted regimes. It is a key part of any rehabilitation process to improve basis education and access to reading material is vital.”

But the Prison Service disputed the allegation that staff cuts had been detrimental. “There is no evidence to suggest that reading is declining in prisons,” a Prison Service spokesperson told Bookwitty. “Learning in prisons reached record levels last year, with over 95,000 learners, and early indications suggest further improvement this year. We are fully committed to improving literacy in prisons so that offenders have the skills they need to secure a job on release.”

Budget cuts aren’t the only problems when it comes to encouraging prisoners to read, nor the only source of controversy for the government. In December the High Court ruled unlawful a 2013 government ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, including those containing books. The victory came after a long campaign led by the Howard League and English PEN, and authors including Nick Horby, Alan Bennett and Salman Rushdie.

“We did not think the government really thought through the consequences about a ban on parcels which would affect things like books,” said Andrew Neilson. “They started to talk about it being about drug smuggling, and at one point a Conservative MP went on the television and said it was about secret messages and quotes that could be contained within the texts. This was just nonsense, it was an unintended consequence of what was from our perspective a petty crackdown on prisoners’ ‘perks and privileges’.” Neilson said that since the ruling, prisons have been a “mixed bag” when it comes to implementing it.

While the ban was overturned, the fact that the government was so adamant to save it gives out a strange signal. It looked to many like an attempt to further reduce the liberty of prisoners, at the expense of their personal development. There are nearly 84,300 prisoners in the UK, up from around 76,000 ten years ago, and 46 per cent are reconvicted within a year of their release. Investing properly in helping prisoners to learn basic skills, including reading, must surely be one key way of helping prisoners rejoin the wider world having served their time.


Patrick Ward is a journalist and writer in London. He likes historical non-fiction and sci-fi, which gives him the opportunity to read about what went wrong in the past and how it might be better ... Show More

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