|Communication skills matter|
The age of austerity has left many prisoners unable to afford to buy credit for wing payphones – the preferred mode of keeping in touch with families and loved ones for many cons, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing. This, in turn, can place immense strain on relationships, particularly with partners and children. In between prison visits, contact with the outside world can depend on the ability to read and write letters.
|Learning to write as an adult|
Outside prison, many people without basic literacy skills have come to rely on mobile phones to keep in touch. However, inside prisons these are contraband items and smuggling or possession can now incur severe penalties, including longer sentences. This coping mechanism can be transferred to using prison payphone, but only if money is available in the prisoner’s account to purchase credits in multiples of £1. No credit? No phone calls.
|No cash on account? No phone call!|
This is fine for those prisoners who can read and write. However, those without these key skills can find themselves with the means to communicate at least weekly, but with no easy way in which to make use of the statutory provision of free letters. The default solution is to find another con willing to assist. However, for those who are already isolated in their cells or who are living with mental health problems or other conditions – such as partial sight – unpaid support can be in short supply.
In theory, at least, all new receptions to every prison are supposed to participate in induction, a process that can last from a couple of days to a week or more. During this phase, not only are they given information about the prison daily regime and advice on a wide range of issues, but they are also supposed to be tested on their literacy and numeracy skills in order to identify those who may be eligible for basic courses in the education department.
This is a particular problem for members of the Travelling community whose numbers are rising inside UK prisons. Most Travellers I’ve met in jail struggle with reading and writing often because of disrupted education during their childhood.
Inside prison, however, they can be confronted with situations that require a degree of literacy or face exclusion. Very few prisoners are now considered for a prison job unless they have achieved at least Level 1 in literacy and numeracy. Older cons who have been in the system for some time can suddenly find themselves sacked from existing work assignments (or ‘not required for labour’, as it is termed in prison) simply because they lack the required education certificates. For those who struggle at Entry Level 1, this can be an uphill battle, even if the motivation to make progress is there.
An additional disincentive for remedial study is the fact that many prison governors are bound by imposed targets that lead them to force prisoners back into the classroom as a matter of policy. For some adults, a return to formal education in a class setting can be either deeply humiliating, genuinely frightening – or a combination of both. At times, this compulsion can create what we termed ‘refuseniks’ – prisoners who prefer to face disciplinary action and the prospect of punishment, rather than participate against their will in literacy and numeracy sessions.
|Serving a double sentence?|
This can also be frustrating and very demoralising for education department staff who have no control over the prison’s policy of compelling some inmates to attend education classes. I have seen several members of the teaching staff in tears, or even taking sick leave, as a direct consequence of the daily battleground in which they are forced to work.
I have often reflected that a much better, and probably more effective, approach would be to assign literate prisoners as peer mentors to work with individuals who have become ‘classroom-phobic’, often as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood or adolescence. Working in a one-to-one environment can mitigate the worst stresses of returning to the classroom and it can also reduce the perceived stigma of having to ‘go back to school’ – which is how many cons regard compulsory participation in education.
|Toe by Toe uses peer mentors to support reading|
At the same, it shouldn’t be overlooked that a great many prisoners do participate in literacy and numeracy classes because they recognise that improving their own skills does offer real benefits, both inside prison as a condition of finding paid work, and as an important element of their future prospects upon release. In these circumstances it can be very rewarding to work with fellow prisoners who are eager to learn.
|Reading can be a pleasure in prison|
However, it also has to be recognised that there are many other prisoners, across the whole age range, who remain cut off from their families, both by a lack of money to use the wing payphones and by their inability to communicate in writing. Unless they are lucky enough to find other prisoners willing to help them out by reading and writing letters for them, then they really can be serving what amounts to a double sentence – in silence and isolation.