The inmates who teach other prisoners to read

Since most of us learn to read and write in the first year or two of school, it feels almost impossible to imagine not being able to. But Angela Cairns, CEO of prisoners reading charity Shannon Trust, knows all too well how illiteracy can feel

Half of England’s prisoners are illiterate. Since most of us learn to read and write in the first year or two of school, it feels almost impossible to imagine. But Angela Cairns, CEO of prisoners reading charity Shannon Trust, knows all too well how illiteracy can feel.

“I sometimes hear a prisoner describing themselves as a ‘bad ‘un’. They say: ‘I was a bad ‘un because I was frustrated’, ‘because I couldn’t read the letters and notices that went around’, or ‘I couldn’t choose what I wanted to eat from a menu card, so I’m just randomly picking’. These are people who feel they have so little control over their lives that they can’t even choose what to eat.”

There are several charities that teach prisoners how to read, but Shannon Trust is unique: all of its 2,000 or so mentors are prisoners themselves. Prisoner–mentors, working with the charity, are helping more than 4,000 other inmates learn to read. The need is huge: 50 per cent of all prisoners in England are ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning they have a reading age of 11 or lower, while many are completely illiterate. The impact on their employability, unsurprisingly, is huge.


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Mentors receive training from Shannon Trust volunteers before beginning to work with learners, gradually building up their key literacy skills and confidence. There are no tests or exams, but after completing a few exercises learners choose a couple of books from Shannon Trust’s reading programme Turning Pages. Cairns’s personal favourite from the charity’s collection is a romance about a trucker who falls for a girl in his local fish and chip shop.

“I heard a senior manager in a prison tell a group of mentors recently: ‘You’ve done something that nobody else has managed to do before’: teach their learners to read,” says Cairns.

Sue Kent, a Shannon Trust volunteer at HMP Bronzefield, says she was blown away by the impact of the scheme: “I left school at 16 and don’t have qualifications but can I teach someone to learn to read? Absolutely. We can all do that. Mentors pick up the books and realise, ‘I can do this’. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to enable someone to do that.”

Literacy can prove a tender subject. As Cairns points out, it is fundamental to a person’s education: fail to learn to read, and it’s easy to feel like you have failed at everything. Illiteracy can be particularly isolating, she says, in intense environments such as prisons. And prisoners who are unable to read or write letters are cut off from a source of valuable support from the outside world.

I left school at 16 and don’t have qualifications, but can I teach someone to learn to read? Absolutely

Persuading prisoners to sign up to the scheme is tough because of the stigma attached to not being able to read – and also because Shannon Trust is unable to use the written word to market itself.

But the charity now operates in 124 UK prisons – almost the entire estate.

Darren, who has been in prison for more than five years, admits that until enrolling on the scheme, he “just blagged” his way through reading. “I would say things like ‘I’ve forgot my glasses’ or ‘my vision is a bit blurred’ when I was asked to read. I would pretend to read letters just to make me feel normal.”

But he began learning with the help of his friend Stuart, a Shannon Trust Reading Plan mentor, and says it has transformed his life. “I can now read letters and reply to my family and friends. I am very thankful to the Shannon Trust for giving me the chance to learn at my own speed.

“I honestly think if my grandmother was still alive she would be so proud that I’ve done this. I know she would say ‘I told you Darren, you’re never too old to learn’. Doing this at 33 years of age just proves that.”

All images by Andy Aitchison


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