The recent joint report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and Ofsted on reading, gives food for thought to all those involved in prison education.
A handful of words stuck in my mind, quoted from a conversation with a Shannon Trust mentor: “I'm happy giving up my association, as long as I get my shower.”
This was part of a comment on the pressure of time in the prison day. As prisons adjust their regimes following the pandemic lockdowns, many people in prison still only get an hour of informal association in the evenings. This is often the only opportunity for showers, to make phone calls home, and for routine tasks.
Our Turning Pages reading programme is not part of formal prison education, so learners and mentors have to fit it into their short association time. That’s why the words of the mentor have stayed with me. They show what Shannon Trust mentors are willing to give up in order to support their fellow prisoners.
I believe this is partly because they see the difference learning to read can make, and just as importantly, supporting others in this way gives our mentors a real boost too. It helps them to develop skills that can help with their own rehabilitation and personal change.
I've heard from our mentors about the many challenges they face, such as a lack of quiet areas to use, staff shortages which disrupt learning, and a feeling that some in authority don't see reading as being as important as other things.
Pank shares his experience of being a mentor. He insists that being able to read is a fundamental skill for everyone. In time, he was able to find a way through the practical challenges. This included securing a dedicated room, getting time out of cells for reading, and permission for Shannon Trust mentors to move through the prison to meet learners.
Shannon Trust mentors speak of needing resilience and determination. I think almost as importantly, they need an ability to recognise what's going on for someone else, so they can build rapport and a bond with others. This helps mentors promote Shannon Trust's work with prison officers and staff, and earn the support they need to make it happen.
Being able to listen, understand and communicate means mentors can encourage others to face whatever difficulties have held them back from reading in the past. The acceptance and empathy of a Shannon Trust mentor can help others feel safe enough to focus beyond their day to day survival in prison, begin to learn to read and think positively about the future.
It's easy to imagine how the sorts of qualities I've described would be valued by an employer following the end of a prison sentence, or how they strengthen relationships with family and friends.
Our mentors talk of how their work with Shannon Trust gives them a focus; with responsibility, respect and a feeling of belonging. Supporting others can help time inside have value and purpose. Mentors speak of “wearing the shirt with pride”. They also talk about people they have helped; particular prisoners who have stuck in their memory.
For one of our mentors, Ryan, he spoke about his future outside of prison: “I have a better outlook on life, as helping others is what I want to continue to do upon my release.”
Ryan enjoys seeing his learners progress and grow in confidence. He especially enjoys seeing them read letters that family and friends have sent.
Learning to read is powerful – for both the learner and mentor – and the benefits help to explain why Shannon Trust mentors are prepared to give up their association time for the benefit of others.
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