Learning to read in prison – it's just the start

Ian Merrill
April 6, 2022

The joint report on reading in prisons by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and Ofsted, reminds us that 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below those of an 11 year old. Although prison education includes English language skills, these sessions assume prisoners can already read. The report notes that up to half cannot read well enough to join available English skills courses or take part in other prison education sessions.


Like all statistics, these numbers are made up of individuals, people in prison who for a variety of reasons didn't learn to read at school. Inside prison, they have to manage as best they can – copying others when they can't make out notices, picking the same meals from menus, and trying to find someone to help them with letters from home. This can make people vulnerable.


At Shannon Trust, we believe nobody should be left out of learning. Turning Pages, our evidence based reading programme, lets individual prisoners learn in a way that suits them. This is usually 1 to 1 with a mentor or using our self-study resources.


We have a flexible and informal approach, and go at the learner's pace. Perhaps most importantly, our programme is run by prisoners for prisoners, individuals with some common experiences who connect and help each other.


The inspectors talked to Jake. He was in care before prison, skipping school, never learning to write, and only managing to read basic books. He told the HMIP and Ofsted team how he asked for extra help from a Shannon Trust mentor when he found the prison education sessions difficult. His mentor helped him to improve his reading enough to pass a series of prison courses. He has now progressed to the barbering training which he hopes will lead to work after his release. “You've got to better yourself,” he told the inspectors. “I don't want to be back in a dead-end situation.”


Jake's experience isn't unusual. We find that 9 out of 10 Shannon Trust learners go on to take up further education and training. I think of our work as a key, opening a door to other opportunities to learn. If someone skipped lessons, didn't have a chance to go to school, or for whatever reason couldn't keep up with their classmates, Shannon Trust can help them as an adult, to build the foundations they need for other opportunities.


Of course, not everyone who learns to read simply wants to study. Our website tells Joe's story. “I want to be able to read the letters my daughter writes to me,” he told his Shannon Trust mentor. Joe had missed out on formal education and was a complete beginner.


He and his mentor took their time until, bit by bit, Joe was able to recognise words in the messages his daughter wrote, and then follow all of them. He went on to finally be able to write his own letters back. “I am now more involved with my children, making me a better parent,” he reflects. “My relationships with friends and family are now more intimate as I can express myself honestly.”


To me, the key elements for helping someone learn to read are time, a quiet space, and an accepting relationship between 2 individuals. Our Shannon Trust mentors are remarkable in their ability to make connections with their learners, supporting them with their reading and making life inside easier too.


I really hope one outcome of the HMIP and Ofsted joint report is that people in prison who want help with reading will be given the time and space to work with our Shannon Trust mentors and change their lives and futures - whether they want to take on other courses like Jake, or strengthen their relationships with family and friends, like Joe.

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