POA Partnership Revolutionises Prison Literacy and Combats Mental Health Problems

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A new partnership between prison officers, the Prison Officers Association and a small UK charity has proved amazingly effective in curing prison inmate illiteracy. At all most no cost, the Shannon Trust Literacy Scheme has been teaching hundreds of prisoners to read. The prison officers involved comment on a stunning parallel improvement in the mental health of the inmates involved.

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Over the past two years an unusual and very successful partnership has developed between the Prison Officers Association (POA) in the UK and a small charity dedicated to helping prisoners learn to read. By late 2002 the charity, called The Shannon Trust, had been promoting the idea of a literacy prisoner-prisoner mentoring scheme for some time. “After several years of experimentation, we had one wing at Wandsworth Prison that suddenly started to get great results. And all the prison officers on the wing commented on what a difference it made to their lives. The inmates involved became much easier to work with”, says David Morgan. So the Trust approached the leadership of the Prison Officers Association, to canvass their views on the scheme.

“I really just walked in through an open door at the POA. Their view was that anything that improved the quality and safety of their members’ lives, was of interest to them” says Christopher Morgan.

The POA then became official sponsors of the scheme. And, from that moment on, the Trust found prisons opening up to them. Within a year over half the 124 prisons around England and Wales were testing the literacy scheme.

“Our aim is to have the Shannon Trust literacy scheme running in every prison, so that an inmate can be moved without having to drop his or her studies. We are now in sight of achieving that over the next year or two. And we would never have got close to it without this active support of the POA. And I really mean never! It has proved essential” says David.

There are over 30,000 illiterate inmates in the prison system at any one time. The trust has found that the average inmate student can learn to read in around 6 months on the scheme. And a full time mentor can graduate around ten students a year. The only costs of the scheme are the manuals (price £25, but supplied free by the trust), the wages for the mentor (which are very low) and a small amount of supervision from the wing officers (mainly spent unlocking and locking doors for students).

“Of course we have no data yet on the recidivism of our graduates. But there is not a moment that I question the positive impact this will have on their ability to avoid further crime in the future” says David. “All these people failed to learn to read at 6 and not much has gone right for them since. The prison officers keep talking about what a turning point this is for them. Their self-respect soars, and their whole view of what is possible in their life changes. So I am sure that we will all benefit from this." Neil Lodge, one of the prison officers involved says “I have seen dirty self-harmers suddenly start smiling and turning up clean and tidy.”

The prison management hierarchy itself is now taking a much closer look at what has been going on, and are keen to promote the scheme. Trials are being conducted at the moment to see what adjustments need to be made to the Shannon Literacy Scheme, to bring it in line with standard classroom practise and goals.

Prison education has always been based around the classroom. But most illiterate inmates will never cross the threshold of a classroom voluntarily. They connect too much humiliation and pain with the classroom setting.

This makes the Shannon Literacy Scheme their only hope. They are quite prepared to sit down somewhere quiet, one on one with a peer. And then once they have learnt to read, they are much more likely to join the full prison education system.

“Others will disagree, but in many cases I am certain that low self-esteem and crime are closely connected in many cases” says David “And once someone arrives in prison their self-esteem drops even lower. In fact, there are compelling statistics showing the majority of inmates exhibit clear signs of poor mental health. Learning to read can begin to roll this back. There will be many factors contributing to a descent into crime, but early failure at school must be an important one.”

For more information, contact The Shannon Trust.

David Morgan

The Shannon Trust

PO Box 236, Oxford OX2 6XU

Tel 0845 458 2642

Fax 0845 458 2643

Email david@shannontrust.com

http://www.shannontrust.com

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