Lessons behind walls


Being able to read and write is important for all of us.
But many people in prison lack the basic level of writing and reading required to function in everyday life.
“We know in the prisons that around 80% to 85% of prisoners have very low levels of literacy,” Methodist Mission practice leader Charles Pearce said.
Mr Pearce said low literacy could mean struggling to complete forms, sit a driver’s test or understand road signs.
Reducing re-offending is one of the Department of Corrections’ Better Public Services targets.
The department aims to have 4600 fewer offenders returning each year by June next year. The State Services Commission records that reoffending has fallen by 25% in the five years since the baseline of June 2011.
Assistant prison director Gill Brown said, while it was not the only factor, there was a link between a prisoner’s level of literacy and the likelihood of them reoffending.
Disillusion with education and lack of confidence was a challenge to improving prisoners’ literacy.
“If you realise you’ve got poor literacy, then you become very reluctant to try,” Mr Pearce said.
He said the mission tried to overcome this challenge by using a “strength-based” approach. This method aimed to build on a student’s knowledge and skills.
The mission’s tutors also applied literacy to areas of specific interest, such as cars, or gave it practical relevance that helped prisoners make sense of what they were learning. This could mean relating courses to work in the kitchen, on the OCF dairy farm, or in cleaning roles.
An intensive literacy programme was 100 hours, taking the form of three two-hour classes each week over 17 weeks.
There were no more than six students in each class, which helped to combine individual attention with group learning, Mr Pearce said.
Success was gauged using a range of measures including the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Assessment Tool (Alnat). Seventy-nine prisoners have been enrolled in the Methodist Mission’s literacy programmes for 2016. Of those, 45% have completed the course and all those have increased their Alnat scores.
Literacy tutors come from a range of backgrounds, though all have some teaching experience.
Ms Brown said tutors needed a relaxed attitude, given the challenges of working in a prison.
“You never know what you’re going to get here.
“It could be that … classes have to be cancelled at a short notice or it could be that you have to wait for doors to open … it’s actually all completely out of your control.”