According to Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, 90% of prisoners have low literacy levels. She acknowledges this is a problem but claims to be tackling the issue. Launching a ‘Prisoner Skills and Employment Strategy’ in October 2009, she said:
“For many prisoners, re-offending is perhaps less a matter of choice than the result of them being poorly equipped to lead a law-abiding and productive life. The skills they lack seem fundamental to the rest of us. Approximately 90% of prisoners have low literacy levels.” The Minister stressed to those attending the launch that prisoner training and employment was a ‘must have’, not a ‘nice to have’.
Continuing this theme, in June 2011, Ms Collins said: “It makes sense that if you… teach them to read and write and help them develop a good work ethic, you reduce the risk of them committing crime when they leave prison.”
Only 1.5% succeeding
It sounds like she really cares. But if 90% of prisoners have problems with reading and writing, surely the Department would make literacy classes a top priority for the majority of inmates. But it struggles to provide classes for more than a few. In 2005, the NZ Herald reported that only 353 inmates attended literacy classes and nearly half of the $3 million education budget went unspent.
Five years later (2010), Dr David Wales, Assistant General Manager for Rehabilitation and Reintegration Services, claimed 1,496 prisoners attended classroom based literacy and numeracy education. That sounds like an improvement – but these figures are deceptive. The Department’s Annual Report says only 9% were assessed by their tutors as having reached a satisfactory level and actually completed the programme.
Nine per cent of 1,496 is only 135 prisoners – even less than attended in 2005. What’s worse, the figure of 135 represents only 1.5% of the prison muster. That’s a disgrace.
Illiteracy an obstacle to rehabilitation
And the ramifications are serious. Prisoners who are unable to read and write are not permitted to attend other rehabilitation programmes (because they require literacy skills). In other words, illiterate prisoners are not allowed to attend programmes which target the causes of offending such as alcohol and drug abuse, anti-social thinking, violence, sexual offending, etc. They have to learn to read and write first. No wonder so many ex-prisoners relapse to alcohol and drugs and re-offend on release.
The lack of literacy is prison is akin to literacy levels in the dark ages. For the vast majority of people who end up in prison, literacy and employment training still remain something that would be ‘nice to have’ – no matter what the Minister may claim.
This issue is discussed at length in Roger Brooking’s new book – Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.