“Everything is words” — literacy in prison education

April 14, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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literacy-in-prison-educationReports about literacy levels among UK prisoners make for stark reading. The most recent Ministry of Justice figures show that 57% of adult prisoners had literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old (prior to any education or training in prison). A quarter of young offenders in the UK have a reading age below that of the average 7-year-old.

In 2022, BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action programme investigated the state of prison education and interviewed a former prisoner who became a reading mentor while in custody. He describes the importance of literacy saying, “Everything is words: application forms, complaint forms, appeals, home detention curfew, parole, offending behaviour courses.” The inability to navigate the prison system — let alone the outside world — highlights the vital importance of reading and writing skills.

The Law in Action report describes the prison education system as “chaotic and often inadequate” and cites Ofsted’s assessment that two-thirds of prisons provide poor service. Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, criticises the initial assessment of prisoner education levels for requiring written responses to a long survey, where the third question is “Do you find it difficult to fill out forms”. Unsurprisingly, many respond in the affirmative, but are then faced with five more pages of questions.

The importance of education as part of the prison rehabilitation process is widely recognised. The title of a 2022 House of Commons Education Committee report sums up this obvious truth, “Not just another brick in the wall, why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity”. Data suggest re-offending rates may be 7.5% lower for prisoners who have engaged in education while incarcerated. Almost eight years ago, the Coates Review recommended that every prisoner have a personal learning plan detailing the educational activity that should be undertaken during their sentence and yet the 2022 report acknowledges “This is not happening consistently across the prison estate”.

The prison population is undoubtedly a difficult target group for education. 30% of prisoners have learning needs, 60% have been excluded from school. Education is often held in low regard among prisoners, one of whom tells Law in Action of the “walk of shame” where prisoners are mocked as they go to the education block. And the system itself conspires to undermine a focus on formal education, with prisoners being paid for work undertaken in prison, but not for attending educational courses.

A pioneering literacy project run by the Shannon Trust seeks to change attitudes to learning among prisoners through a peer-to-peer reading support programme. In 2017, Chief Executive Angela Cairns told The Guardian, “Many of the people we work with are scared of education. They’ve had negative experiences of being in a classroom and of formal learning. There’s also a huge amount of stigma about not being able to read.” Their solution is to use mentors who are also prisoners to run reading sessions using specially developed materials. The aim is two-fold — improved literacy among prisoners inspired by trusted peers, and a sense of achievement and purpose for the mentors themselves.

Angela Cairns is realistic about the impact “It can’t be a magic bullet,” she says. But the potential benefits are obvious, “Being able to read does give them a better chance outside – and it gives them a better chance inside as well.”

Rosetta Translation is a global language services provider, with offices in Europe, the US and Asia. We specialise in legal translation, technical translation and court interpreting services. Thanks to our office in Shanghai, China, we have particular expertise in Chinese translation services.

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