|Read all about it: literacy is key to rehabilitation|
|Wednesday, 13 June 2012 10:47|
Read all about it
Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Sadiq Khan believes literacy is key to rehabilitation
In the first week in May, I took time out of campaigning in the London mayoral elections to attend a Reading Group. It was a diary commitment I was determined to keep. But this wasn’t just any old reading group – this was a special reading group. It was behind bars. Those sat around in a circle discussing their latest choice of book weren’t able to go home at the end of the session – they had to go back to their cells.
After an interview in London’s Evening Standard back in October in which I talked of the importance of tackling literacy in our prisons, I was contacted by a large number of people wanting to know how they might be able to help. The response I received was surprisingly positive. Amongst those getting in touch was Dr Sarah Turvey from Roehampton University, who runs the reading group in Wandsworth Prison. I was very interested in seeing the reading group at work.
It’s widely accepted that a person’s life chances are affected by many things including levels of literacy. Not being able to read and write makes it more difficult to secure a job. It reinforces inequality. Tackling this has been rightfully the focus of policy makers for many years. But in our prisons the challenge is much greater. Around two in five of those in prison can’t read or write. There’s no doubting that this in some cases contributed to the drift into criminality in the first place. It’s also vindication for just how important being tough on the causes of crime remains – policy makers need to continue to root out inequality, be it in education, housing health – if the nation is to make inroads into levels of crime, making our communities safer.
Those in prison who can’t read and write are a reminder of the failures of our society. While being deprived of their liberty is the right and proper punishment for those committing serious and violent crimes, we must do all we can to ensure that, upon release, prisoners don’t go on to re-offend. To help achieve this, working to improve education, skills and training is key. That’s why the work of reading groups like the one run by Sarah in HMP Wandsworth play a small but important role in tackling this literacy challenge.
The reading group was, on the face of it, like I would expect any other reading group. All of those in attendance had read the book since the last session, and Sarah gently coaxed out of the readers what they thought of the book. I enjoyed the way each member was encouraged to speak, no one was judged by what they said or thought. While, on this occasion, it was broadly agreed that the choice of book had been a poor one, it did not detract from the enthusiasm of the group to choose the next one. And the process of choosing was an open and democratic. Of course, this is a mere drop in the ocean given the scale of the literacy challenge in our prisons. But it is an important contribution. Currently, only a small fraction of prisons have a reading club, and only a small fraction of prisoners attend. But it was evident that the books being read were being passed around the wing, spreading further the joy of reading.
I believe our criminal justice system should be built on the twin pillars of punishment and reform. Getting the balance right between these two is important if we are to maintain the confidence of the public, media and victims in the way the system deals with those who are found guilty of committing serious and violent crimes. But we also need to reform those found guilty – 90% of those currently behind bars will be free within ten years. Doing all we can to prevent a drift back into criminality must be imperative, and tackling literacy is key to this.
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