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I responded to a call for volunteers from Mike Williams, CEO of the Howard League about four years ago. Mike said that if you can teach a prisoner to read Hairy Maclary then you can increase his chances of getting a job then he gets out. Somehow, that really moved me, the thought of a prisoner reading Hairy Maclary – wanting to read it, never having been able to read it. It struck a chord, I wanted to do that.
I haven’t put my name on this because when I trained they asked us to be discreet about our involvement. Training was in two parts. First was a comprehensive introduction to the Howard League Literacy Programme, which is fantastic. More than 60% of our prison population is functionally illiterate. The Howard League operates the Literacy Programme with volunteers in 15 prisons around the country.
I try not to know the crimes of my students. Once you’re in there, face to face, it’s just you and a person who missed out on the opportunity of learning to read. Usually, that will be because they were moved around a lot as a child and no one made sure they went to school. By the time you are sitting opposite them, they will have developed all kinds of strategies to cope with being illiterate. Those strategies might change from person to person but what doesn’t change is that by then, they will believe they are stupid because they can’t read.
So your first task is to help them understand that is not the case. That is an ongoing process, to help them build confidence as they learn. The joy in being a tutor is seeing their wonder and pleasure in discovering that they can learn, they do get it, and it’s not impossible. And all it takes to achieve that, is one person to sit with them and make it happen.
The Howard League supplies workbooks, dictionaries, extensive literary resources and all the support you could need. When the prisoner – we call them students once they start the programme – has completed the workbook, he is ready to graduate. That usually takes about 12 weeks though many volunteers continue beyond that. Tutoring sessions are usually two hours a week, with lesson planning and prep in between. I like to make the reading material specific to the students interests as obviously that helps them learn and enjoy the sessions. You don’t have to be a teacher, but I do think it helps if you have enthusiasm and some compassion.
The positive benefits of the programme are significant. The end goal is to help the prisoner have a better chance of getting a job on release, to prevent reoffending. The immediate benefit is that the student becomes happier, more confident and therefore more hopeful, and easier to manage within the prison. That obviously helps the staff. For me, it is hugely rewarding. It can be challenging, sometimes very much so, but it makes it so rewarding. When you get feedback from the staff that your student is a changed person, it feels pretty good!
Graduations are held at the prison when several students are ready graduate, usually about six or seven prisoners at a time. The graduations are significant occasions and very well supported. They are attended by a number of dignitaries including Tony Gibbs, the president of the Howard League, Dame Catherine Tizard, the patron of the Howard League, and a number of high profile politicians as the volunteer Literacy Programme gets broad cross party support. Last year, Bill English presented the certificates at Auckland Regional Prison, when he was PM. For most of the prisoners, this is the first certificate of achievement they have ever received. It is a really special thing.
The second part of the training was the Safety Induction. Obviously, safety is an issue in a maximum security prison, and we have to wear radios at all times. All volunteers and corrections staff have to do a refresher Safety Induction every two years.Enquire about Volunteering