Chief Inspector's blog: why don’t prisoners learn to read?

As a former teacher, I often ask prisoners how they got on in school; the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is often ‘not well’. Many describe having struggled through but survived primary school, only to be expelled in their first two or three years of secondary school. Others never spent much time in education at all, having somehow through slipped through the net, often because of frequent changes of address or time spent overseas. A large proportion of prisoners also have a learning difficulty that added to their problems at school.

One prisoner I met in his mid-50s cried as he told me he had been in and out of prison all his life, spending more than 20 years behind bars and yet, to his shame, never having learned to read.

It is clear that a large proportion of those in prison struggle with reading – an assessment in August 2021 by HMPPS put the number of adult prisoners with a reading age below that expected of an 11-year-old at around 57%. This hampers the progress they can make while they are serving their sentences and hugely restricts their opportunities on release.

Many non-readers in prison have learned to mask their difficulties due to the stigma surrounding illiteracy, but their experience is diminished as a result. They have to find alternative ways to complete basic prison tasks, such as getting their cellmates to fill out their menus or officers to help them with legal letters. The stigma of being unable to read means that prisoners can be reluctant to seek the help that they require.

At the end of last year, HMI Prisons and Ofsted began a joint thematic inspection into the way that reading was taught in prisons. We visited six jails of different categories, including male and female, as well as both public and private sector establishments. The findings were far worse than I had expected–with those prisoners with the most need receiving the least support.

The problem began with the initial assessments; during COVID-19 restrictions these were long, photocopied questionnaires that were put under cell doors. The third question to one I saw was, ‘do you find it hard to fill out forms?’ In the pile I looked through around a third had ticked this box, before they had to wade through pages of further questions.

Prisoners told us they were fed up with doing the same assessment whenever they moved prison, often because the prison they were coming from had lost or failed to send on the result. The accuracy of assessments was also questionable because to qualify for many prison jobs, prisoners needed to demonstrate the reading skills of a Level 1 qualification. Non or poor readers therefore frequently got their cell mates to fill out the form for them so they could get work. The pay rates in prison constituted a further disincentive, given that prisoners were paid more for work than for education. Governors have the ability to increase pay for those in education to parity with those in work, but few appear to use it, meaning prisoners are better off walking round the wing wiping cells doors with a damp cloth than acquiring the skills they need to succeed on release.

The incentives to the education contractors in prison seem to be uniquely focused on prisoners gaining as many qualifications as possible. Prisoners who could not read were unlikely to acquire a qualification and consequently given no help at all – instead they were referred to a third sector organisation such as the Shannon Trust, which runs reading mentoring schemes in prison.

There is no formal relationship between the Shannon Trust and prisoner education providers, and progress that prisoners make with their mentors is not shared, monitored, or recorded by the education department. The reality, especially during lockdowns, has been that many reading mentors have been stuck in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. While prison workers are prioritised and unlocked to do their jobs, Shannon Trust mentors are not. This means they are only able to work with their mentees during the short daily association time when most prisoners will want to shower, telephone family or get some fresh air. Unsurprisingly, then, few reading sessions actually take place.

Most shocking was that almost none of the teachers we spoke to had any idea how to teach reading. They had not been trained in the use of phonics – the established and well-researched method for teaching reading in English schools, involving  sounding out letters or combinations of letters and building these into words. Most reading we saw being done in class was from photocopied sheets rather than actual books. Once again, the goal was to do just enough to gain the qualification, rather than to learn and take pleasure from reading.

Most prison libraries had some books for lower-level readers, but these were limited in number and subject content, the latter of which was unlikely to be of interest to most prisoners. During the pandemic most libraries were closed, and some are still only providing a trolley service to the wings, further limiting the range on offer for the weaker readers.

The fact that so many prisoners start and finish their sentences unable to read is a terrible indictment of the prison service and of education providers. It is crucial that these services come together to make sure that not only are non-readers taught to read, but that all prisoners have the opportunity to improve their literacy skills while in custody. There are far too many prisoners stuck in their cells whiling away their time sleeping or watching daytime television. If prisons took reading seriously, prisoners would spend their sentences productively, gaining the skills to find work when they are released and the chance to lead productive, crime-free lives.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons