[Report] Unlocked: The Crisis In Prisons

Mel Jones reports from English PEN’s ‘Unlocked’ debate, where Mark Haddon, Alex Wheatle and others explored the crisis in reading, writing and literacy in Britain’s prisons.  First published on Free Word Online.

Lindsay Mackie at 'Unlocked'
Lindsay Mackie at 'Unlocked'

On 8 February, writers, prison governors, project managers and ex-offenders gathered at the Free Word Centre to discuss the literacy crisis in Britain’s prisons.

The evening began with a statement of intent by John Podmore, an experienced Prison service worker for over 25 years and governor of three prisons. He asked everyone in the room to make a commitment this evening towards the possibility of achieving something in the future.

Podmore began by putting the literacy crisis in prisons in context: the extremely high percentage of illiteracy in prisons is reflective of a crisis in wider society. Podmore then went on to pose some difficult problems for the audience: is there a link between crime and literacy? Should we, the public, should spend money on education on in prisons when the money could be spent enhancing other public services? These questions, while interesting and essential to the development of education within prisons and society, Podmore told us, would leave us in danger of losing sight of what he thinks to be three main issues around discussing literacy in prisons:

  1. Prison problems are community problems. We can, as a society, choose whether we want to help people to leave prison better educated than when they arrived.
  2. Data. There is no recent evidence for figures of literacy in prisons – the latest data was created in 2000, so we have no proof of links between literacy, education and re-offending rates.
  3. Do we consider literacy a human right? If so, is giving prisoners the right to literacy giving them the right to freedom?

 Lindsay Mackie, Chair of English PEN’s Readers and Writers Committee explained the scheme, which on a basic level ‘dates’ writers with prisoners. In the last year, 800 prisoners were helped through this scheme. The writers’ books are sent to prisoners, and then the writer visits the prison to speak with the prisoners about literature and reading.

Meg Rostoff visited Holloway prisons and loved it – she said it was engaging, vibrant, and that she got as much out of it as the prisoners.

In this setting, the Prison Service is able to get to people who may otherwise not have access to these types of courses, and the prisoner feels valued and important – maybe for the first time.

The Readers and Writers scheme has this year set up a writing competition entitled ‘The book that saved my life’, receiving over 300 entries from 70 prisons and institutions. The winning entry was by a gentleman who’d read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The essays proved to be inspirational, serving as proof that literacy really can help to change people’s lives.

Novelist Alex Wheatle began by telling the audience that in his experience over 50% of the prisoners he came across were re-offenders, and his main concern was how we stop this from being the case. Alex was imprisoned himself in his youth, and had expected that he’d reoffend. However, during his time in prison he went on a ‘match reading’ programme which made him realise that he did have something to contribute to society. This is what he tries to communicate to the prisoners he meets. Even if they don’t decide they want to become writers themselves – one prisoner decided that when he leaves prison that he wants to open a barber shop – Alex shows them that literacy skills come in all shapes and forms, and gives prisoners the confidence to take control of their own future.

Next up we heard from Nina Champion, Learning Matters Project Manager with the Prison Education Trust. Her objectives were

  • to develop the literacy and learner voice;
  • to find the five things prisoners want to change about learning services.

Learning Matters is an advocacy project which enables the learner to have a voice, for the prisoners personally and in the development of wider policy. It also links closely to PEN’s message of freedom of expression. By engaging prisoners in this way, they want to empower prisoners to become part of the solution and not just the problem.

Nina read five quotes from prisoners regarding changes they’d like to see within the prison education system. The quotes were similar to those you’d expect to find within any government initiative: less target-based learning, shorter waiting lists, more skilled workshops and, most aptly in the current climate, ‘change it all because it’s shit’.

Mark Haddon was the second author in attendance who’d participated in the Readers and Writers scheme. Mark described his experiences of working with young offenders in prisons as being inspirational and moving. Despite everybody’s different backgrounds and experiences, the results are always the same: everybody realises they have a story in them, even the most mundane things can be interesting to someone else. Mark also told how this illustrated that you can have literacy without being literary. The scheme was something Mark would like to do again, within his local area.

Mark also talked about an ex-prisoner he’d read about who claimed that letter writing was vital to him as he’d received a letter from an Holocaust survivor. The letter was full of humanity and the prisoner kept it with him always. By demonising people in prison, we are taking away prisoner’s ability to heal and to forgive themselves.

Alex Wheatle talked about prisoners’ need to communicate with their family in whatever format they are comfortable with. Some are away fro their families: their wife, their children, their parents, and if they can’t communicate with the outside world, they have nothing to keep them going. Many prisoners would like to be able to record an audio message as it would be so much easier than writing, but the prison service are uncooperative with this.

Podmore brought up the issue of prisoners released on licence, and the difficulties they face if they breach their licence and are left in the hands of the parole board to decide whether or not they are to go back inside or not. Many prisoners decide to remain in prison for a longer period initially, as they are so often set terms which they cannot comply with or understand. One member of the audience suggested that the reason so many prisoners end up inside again was due to dyslexia, as many prisoners who are released mix up appointments and are sent back to prison as a result. Podmore agreed that this could be an issue, and that with diagnosis and relevant support, this could be addressed.

Another member of the audience told the room how disgusted he was that the Arts Council had cut their funding for the Writers in Prison Service this year, and would like to see English PEN lobby the Arts Council to re-instate the funding. It has been proven, he said, that it is cheaper to pay for a writer in a prison, than it is to pay to keep a prisoner inside. The problem here, it was pointed out, is that the pots of money are not the same. The Arts Council won’t benefit from the costs saved by the prison service, so they won’t be convinced by this argument, and the prison service has KPI targets to hit. The other main issue is that it is impossible to prove that creativity can reduce re-offending rates.

Another major problem is the difficulties of creative agencies getting into prisons in the first place, as it is down to each warden to decide if they want to be involved in a project. If a warden does not feel that literacy is important to the prisoners then they do not have to engage with English PEN or any other agency. This, one of many difficulties we face in this area, gets to the heart of what we, as a country, think prisons are meant to do: are prisons meant to ‘enable’ or ‘disable’ criminals?

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