Data published by the Ministry of Justice claims that 57% of adults in prison in the UK have a reading level below that of an average 11 year old.
A lack of basic skills such as reading and numeracy has been linked to higher rates of reoffending and the likelihood of an individual turning to crime.
Ofsted and officials at His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) have acknowledged the need for better prison education and that, in the last year, there has been little improvement in this area.
Reading in prisons
The Ministry of Justice have been criticised for their ignorance to the rising number of prisoners in the North West, leading to further demand for prison education in the region.
In 2022, Ofsted and HMIP carried out a joint review on reading education in prisons across the county. Within this review, the high levels of prisoners unable to read was addressed and insight was offered into how a lack of basic skills can limit an offender’s opportunities in life.
This report establishes that prisons are not providing appropriate education for prisoners nor encouraging reading as a beneficial and enjoyable activity. They claim that education was not prioritised in many prisons and leaders did not have effective systems in place to properly address an individual’s reading needs.
In response to this, the report recommends that Ofsted should dedicate more time to reviewing prison reading education. It was also advised that prison governors adopt a whole-prison approach by implementing strategies to identify reading ability and using libraries to promote reading for pleasure.
Last month, a follow up report was launched which determined that the quality of reading education in prisons was still inadequate:
“Recent HMIP inspections have been highly critical of the amount of time prisoners are spending locked up and the lack of purposeful activity. It is in this context that we are publishing this review of progress. It shows that things have not improved at anything like the rate that Ofsted and HMIP would have expected.”Charlie Taylor (His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons)
While it is now compulsory for prisons to have reading strategies in place, the report states that the majority of these are generic and not well-catered to prisoners. This specifically concerns the environment for education in prisons, as many inmates may not respond well to ‘classroom’ styles of teaching.
The newest report calls for further action to be taken to support inmates with their education, highlighting reading as an activity that can improve the wellbeing of prisoners and reduce the rate of reoffending.
The Shannon Trust – helping prisoners get back into reading
Shannon Trust are a charity providing education to prisoners across the UK. Within the report, the relationship between the charity and prisons was highlighted.
Due to the lack of specialist staff, many prisons rely on third-sector organisations, such as Shannon Trust, to provide early reading teaching. The approach of Shannon Trust is different from that of typical prison education structures and members of the charity consider it to be a more effective method of education for inmates.
Shannon Trust’s approach relies on a one-to-one system in which a mentor, typically a prisoner who can read proficiently, coaches a fellow inmate with more limited ability.
“They will sit with somebody and do it as often or little as they want really, so it’s quite an informal program. There’re no exams, there’s no classrooms… They have around twenty minute sessions, but I think it really depends on the learner and what they want, whenever they’re comfortable, wherever they can do it.”Amy Longstaff (communications and fundraising manager of Shannon Trust)
Shannon Trust believe that this method of teaching is beneficial to prisoners, and research suggests that the mentor/pairing system is central to the success of the programme.
Turning Pages – supporting education in prisons
To support education in prisons, Shannon Trust have developed their own resource called Turning Pages, which has now been implemented across all prisons in the UK.
Turning Pages is a set of reading manuals specifically designed for adult learners to be worked through with a mentor. These manuals use a synthetic phonics approach to learning, which first teaches the sounds of letters before building into words. The Turning Page’s manuals have been found to help re-engage learners with education and develop their confidence and wellbeing in prison.
Paula Harrison is the North West Regional Manager of Shannon Trust, she said:
“Officers and other prison staff report that individuals who can’t articulate themselves often get into fights and can’t manage their anger. When they learn to read, they improve their vocabulary and ability to do a lot of things. Anecdotally, I think it does set them up before they get released to manage situations better.”
Research by the Ministry of Justice supports this, claiming that those who have taken part in education while in prison were significantly less likely to reoffend in the first 12 months of release. The reasons for being unable to read are different for ach prisoner, but in some cases, this issue begins with an individual’s reading struggles not being identified in schools.
“It can just be that, particularly in early years schooling, where the foundations were put in place, they’ve only really scraped by. Ever since then, they’ve become masters at disguising the fact that they can’t read,” continued Paula.
In the US, it is estimated that two thirds of children who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade (9-10 years old) will end up in jail or on welfare schemes.
Serving at HMP Garth, Lancashire, inmate Joe admits that he “bluffed” most of his way through school and was absent for much of his formal education. Joe was motivated to learn to read after being unable to read letters from his daughter, and having to ask friends to read and reply to her on his behalf. After working with experienced mentor Martin, Joe developed his ability to read and began to piece together the words from his daughter’s letters.
He also talks enthusiastically about the time his daughter first read “daddy’s handwriting”. He said: “I am now more involved with my children, making me a better parent. My relationships with friends and family are now more intimate as I can express myself honestly as I don’t have to rely on others to speak for me.”
Joe completed all five of the Shannon Trust’s Turning Page’s manuals and has developed his ability as a writer. He can also now read independently.
Prisons and reading in the North West
In the North West, the rate of imprisonment stands at 170 prisoners per 100,000 people. In comparison, the average rate for the rest of the county stands at 131 prisoners per 100,000 people. Across England and Wales, this is the highest area of imprisonment across any region.
To reduce rates of offending and reoffending, Shannon Trust, Ofsted and HMIP all recognise that reading and writing skills are important.
To support their efforts, the Shannon Trust are constantly recruiting more volunteers. In the North West, Paula states that there is a particular demand.
To support the Shannon Trust’s work or find out more about volunteering opportunities, click here.