Learning to read helps prisons to be safer places

Ian Merrill
February 1, 2022

In his 24 January blog post, Charlie Taylor, considers whether lockdowns are the solution to prison violence. As Chief Inspector of prisons, he and his team have more insight than most into the pressures on everyone who lives or works in the prison system.


Pandemic restrictions meant that for just over a year from March 2020, and again during the recent Omicron wave, most people in prison stayed locked up for 22 or 23 hours a day. Time out of cell was restricted to small 'bubbles', which couldn't mix.


Over this time, violence between prisoners fell. It was one positive from a particularly grim time, when visits, education and work largely stopped. In the 5 years before the pandemic, assaults had risen significantly with 2019 being the worst on record.


As the Government considers its prison strategy, promising investment in new buildings and sophisticated technology, could our prisons be made safer by continuing to restrict prisoners to small, separate groups, with little interaction and extended hours in their cells?


Charlie Taylor concludes that "Suppressing violence through lockdowns is not the long-term answer to violence." He reflects on a number of causes of prison assaults - drugs, debt, intimidation, and the numbers and experience of the prison staff on shift. He also notes the way aggression can escalate, becoming a habitual response to fear and threat.


I agree. A policy of locking doors to reduce violence, rather than as a short term response to exceptional circumstances, reduces the role of prisons in meaningful rehabilitation. Keeping someone in a cell for 22 hours a day, and limiting contact to a few other people, won't help them prepare for a different and positive future beyond the prison gates. Our society relies on interactions with others.


At Shannon Trust, we believe in the power of reading and education to change lives for the better. Many in the criminal justice system struggled at school. Over 50% of the prison population find reading difficult, with many not being able to read at all.


Learning to read has an immediate benefit for individuals, helping them navigate day to day life in prison with its signs, menus and paperwork. It's easier and more personal to keep contact with family and friends if you don't have to trust someone else enough to read your cards or letters for you, and admit you can't manage it yourself.


Mentors benefit too; seeing they have something to give and that they can make a real difference to someone else's life. This too can inspire a different path outside the criminal justice system.


For learners and mentors it's a win-win. Reading opens the door to more education and training for those who want it. It also improves access to jobs in the community at the end of a prison term.


Prison staff can benefit too. I heard recently from a member of prison staff, about a learner and mentor he supported to begin to read. The officer said, "Over the course of the session I could see the learner’s confidence was growing. It was powerful stuff and really heart-warming. At the end of the session the learner said he will never forget today and how much it will be able to help him in the future, he said he did not know why he had not done it sooner. I congratulated both the learner and mentor as to what a fantastic job they had both done. It was an amazing 20 minutes of my day and all 3 of us walked out of that room inspired and absolutely buzzing."


I believe a key strength in Shannon Trust's approach is the way it depends on acceptance, trust and personal relationships. Learners and mentors work informally, one to one. They go at the learner's own pace, outside the formal prison education system.


If we can build prison environments where these sorts of bonds between people are supported and encouraged, there should be less chance of violence being a habitual response when prisoners mix – meaning there's less need to keep them apart.


There is no single answer to violence in prisons. Nevertheless, Shannon Trust's experience shows that learning to read changes attitudes as well as lives. If more prisoners believe in themselves, and can see a different future for them and their families, the more those living in our prisons will want to turn away from violence and its consequences.

Ian Merrill

Chief Executive, Shannon Trust

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