Thursday, February 26, 2015

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Sentenced to Silence

Alex Cavendish casts his eye over a toxic blend of austerity and illiteracy in prisons which has an effect on the poorest among the prison population. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

I’ve often reflected that literacy can – sometimes literally – provide a lifeline to prisoners. For many inmates their experience of imprisonment is primarily about exclusion and isolation. Separated from family and friends, and increasingly from other inmates due to the rise in 23-hour a day ‘bang up’ in their cells as one consequence of overcrowding and staff shortages in many prisons, the ability to read and write can maintain channels of communication with the outside world that otherwise might be closed.

Communication skills matter
One of the less appreciated aspects of the current crisis engulfing our overcrowded prisons is that serving prisoners are less able to get paid work inside their jail or access to education courses which also pays a small weekly wage of around £8. Those who have no financial support from family or friends outside often have to survive on what is termed ‘bang up pay’ of £2.50 a week and either £1 or 50p of that gets deducted at source to pay for the rented in-cell TV (depending on whether it’s a single or double cell).

The age of austerity has left many prisoners unable to afford to buy credit for wing payphones – the preferred mode of keeping in touch with families and loved ones for many cons, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing. This, in turn, can place immense strain on relationships, particularly with partners and children. In between prison visits, contact with the outside world can depend on the ability to read and write letters.

Learning to write as an adult
However, it is also clear that this option isn’t open to many prisoners who face challenges with reading and writing. Some official estimates indicate that around 48 percent of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing, ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. This isn’t really surprising given that around half of all adult prisoners were excluded from school during their childhood and this early alienation from the classroom can continue to have a long-lasting impact throughout adult life.

Outside prison, many people without basic literacy skills have come to rely on mobile phones to keep in touch. However, inside prisons these are contraband items and smuggling or possession can now incur severe penalties, including longer sentences. This coping mechanism can be transferred to using prison payphone, but only if money is available in the prisoner’s account to purchase credits in multiples of £1. No credit? No phone calls.

No cash on account? No phone call!
So how do prisoners with little or no cash manage to keep in touch with family and friends, other then by occasional visits? All prisoners are entitled to a free ‘weekly letter’ with an envelope and a sheet of writing paper provided. This is sent out by 2nd class post. In some establishments the number of free letters allowed is determined by the individual prisoner’s status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, with some jails awarding three per week to those cons on Enhanced – the highest level within the scheme.

This is fine for those prisoners who can read and write. However, those without these key skills can find themselves with the means to communicate at least weekly, but with no easy way in which to make use of the statutory provision of free letters. The default solution is to find another con willing to assist. However, for those who are already isolated in their cells or who are living with mental health problems or other conditions – such as partial sight – unpaid support can be in short supply.

In theory, at least, all new receptions to every prison are supposed to participate in induction, a process that can last from a couple of days to a week or more. During this phase, not only are they given information about the prison daily regime and advice on a wide range of issues, but they are also supposed to be tested on their literacy and numeracy skills in order to identify those who may be eligible for basic courses in the education department.

Education class
Having worked in several prison education departments as a peer mentor, I would identify flaws in this approach at various levels. Many prisoners living with functional literacy are deeply ashamed of what could be considered a lifelong disability. Outside they may have relied on family or close friends to help them with day-to-day tasks. Others have developed different coping mechanisms to conceal an inability to read or write. Men whose education has been severely disrupted when they were young boys can sometimes be very resourceful when it comes to evading a need to be literate.

This is a particular problem for members of the Travelling community whose numbers are rising inside UK prisons. Most Travellers I’ve met in jail struggle with reading and writing often because of disrupted education during their childhood.

Inside prison, however, they can be confronted with situations that require a degree of literacy or face exclusion. Very few prisoners are now considered for a prison job unless they have achieved at least Level 1 in literacy and numeracy. Older cons who have been in the system for some time can suddenly find themselves sacked from existing work assignments (or ‘not required for labour’, as it is termed in prison) simply because they lack the required education certificates. For those who struggle at Entry Level 1, this can be an uphill battle, even if the motivation to make progress is there.

An additional disincentive for remedial study is the fact that many prison governors are bound by imposed targets that lead them to force prisoners back into the classroom as a matter of policy. For some adults, a return to formal education in a class setting can be either deeply humiliating, genuinely frightening – or a combination of both. At times, this compulsion can create what we termed ‘refuseniks’ – prisoners who prefer to face disciplinary action and the prospect of punishment, rather than participate against their will in literacy and numeracy sessions.

Serving a double sentence?
An alternative tactic adopted by others is to attend the classes – in order to get marked as present and then receive their pay – and then either feign illness, or else become highly disruptive in the classroom in a bid to get sent back to their cells. Of course, this inevitably disrupts the learning environment and makes it much more difficult for others who want to embrace the opportunity to improve their skills to make progress.

This can also be frustrating and very demoralising for education department staff who have no control over the prison’s policy of compelling some inmates to attend education classes. I have seen several members of the teaching staff in tears, or even taking sick leave, as a direct consequence of the daily battleground in which they are forced to work.

I have often reflected that a much better, and probably more effective, approach would be to assign literate prisoners as peer mentors to work with individuals who have become ‘classroom-phobic’, often as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood or adolescence. Working in a one-to-one environment can mitigate the worst stresses of returning to the classroom and it can also reduce the perceived stigma of having to ‘go back to school’ – which is how many cons regard compulsory participation in education.

Toe by Toe uses peer mentors to support reading
Such strategies can also be more cost-effective in an era of budgetary constraints, but probably need to be much more intensive than the existing Toe by Toe voluntary adult literacy scheme, as this only offers a 20-minute session up to five times a week and depends on other prisoners volunteering. It also requires regular association time and this is being severely reduced across the prison estate.

At the same, it shouldn’t be overlooked that a great many prisoners do participate in literacy and numeracy classes because they recognise that improving their own skills does offer real benefits, both inside prison as a condition of finding paid work, and as an important element of their future prospects upon release. In these circumstances it can be very rewarding to work with fellow prisoners who are eager to learn.

Reading can be a pleasure in prison
Back on the wings it has been great to see prisoners who couldn’t read or write when they arrived for induction starting to put pen to paper for their family and friends. I’ve seen a man in his 60s triumph over a lifetime of illiteracy through his determination to use his free weekly letters to maintain contact with his wife and family. For him, the first five tentative lines on a sheet of prison paper proved to be a major breakthrough. Now he’s a regular correspondent and enjoys reading books. He attributes the fact that his wife is still supporting him throughout a long sentence as a direct result of being to maintain communication with her through letters.

However, it also has to be recognised that there are many other prisoners, across the whole age range, who remain cut off from their families, both by a lack of money to use the wing payphones and by their inability to communicate in writing. Unless they are lucky enough to find other prisoners willing to help them out by reading and writing letters for them, then they really can be serving what amounts to a double sentence – in silence and isolation.


AM said...

Lockdown at max security prison in S. Carolina

mal higgins said...

I must say I have found these recent articles on prison life about by Alex very interesting and informative. Long may they continue.


AM said...


a few people have said to me that they really get into his pieces. His has become my favourite blog. I can actually hear the doors banging and the keys jangling when I read his stuff, he conveys the atmosphere that well.