I started my professional life as an adult literacy teacher for young, unemployed people in Liverpool and went on to teach children with special needs. Literacy is the building block which enables people to take charge of their lives, to thrive in the world of work and be supportive parents.
The fact that so many people in prison can barely read or write is shameful for such a wealthy nation. But it’s not a surprise: prisons are full of the poor, the sick and the ostracised. At a time when public debate has focussed on whether tax evasion should be a criminal as well as moral offence, it is illuminating to look at who we do criminalise and who ends up in prison.
Thousands of men, women and children are sent to prison by magistrates on remand – but 70 per cent of these people will not subsequently be given a prison sentence. Thousands more are punished with short terms in jail for being annoying, carrying out street begging or public order offences. Every year, tens of thousands of people’s experience of prison is linked to their fragile mental and physical health, including drug and alcohol addiction. Poor literacy is almost always a part of their struggle to survive.
New Labour poured taxpayers’ money into prison literacy programmes but to little avail. This just seemed to encourage the lower courts to send more poor people to prison. A decade on, and the new justice secretary is an enthusiast for prison education and has ordered a review.
One idea emerging is that prison officers should be supporting literacy on the landings. This would be a great idea – if we had enough prison officers who were literate and educated. A prison officer is not currently required to have a single GCSE. The Howard League for Penal Reform has suggested that prison officers should be seen in the same way as nurses and should move towards qualifying with a vocational degree. This would require investment but would be money well spent in professionalising what is an extremely complex job.
Prisoners that have poor literacy are getting less help as prisons are grossly overcrowded and understaffed. This makes it impossible for many prisoners to get out of their cells to go to a class because there is no one to escort them through the locked doors. Inspectors report that whilst prison libraries may be well stocked with books, they are empty of prisoners.
Last year the Howard League won a great victory over petty-minded political nastiness when the ban on sending in books to prisoners was overturned. Some of the men and women serving longer terms benefitted and their lives in prison were made materially better by having more books. That made the campaign worth the effort. But in reality this affected very few people: those who have friends and family to send in books and the ability to read.
Big changes need to be made. We have to stop using prison for people who annoy us and get them skilled help and a safe home so that they can work and flourish; or at the very least stop annoying people. We have to make sure that the few people who commit serious and violent crime, and for whom prison is the only option, can work and get an education during the long years of incarceration. Even they will be released at some point and we want them to contribute to society whilst in prison and on reintegration.
Education is enlightenment. It is hope and opportunity. The people who need it the most should get it, and then we would all benefit.
Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of The Howard League for Prison Reform.
This piece is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.