Chief Inspector's blog: Reading in prisons - challenges and opportunities

Last March, HMI Prisons and Ofsted published a report into the teaching of reading in prisons. Having previously been a teacher, I was concerned about the low levels of literacy I had seen in our prisons and our report confirmed some of my worst fears.

Far too many prisoners were coming into prison unable to read and were leaving at the end of their sentences having made no progress. Education providers did not prioritise teaching reading and those with the most need often got the least support.

Organisations such as the Shannon Trust were doing their best to support the weakest readers, but their scheme was dependent on prisoner mentors being unlocked to do the work. While prisons prioritise getting prisoners out for essential jobs such as cleaning or working in the kitchens, reading mentors were often locked up for long periods of time and, in the brief period when they were let out, sometimes had to choose between teaching reading and having a shower or going to the gym.

Prisoners with low literacy levels were disadvantaged in prison because they could not read correspondence from family or lawyers, they found it difficult to order from menus or the prison shop, and were often unable to get prison jobs. On release things were even worse; there are very few jobs that do not require workers to be literate and, by not improving reading, prisons were making it more likely that ex-prisoners would be unable to get work and would lapse back into criminality.

Our report made clear that it was never just the responsibility of education providers, librarians and prisoner mentors to improve reading. It needed to be an activity that was promoted across the prison, starting with the governor.

A year on, we are beginning to see the start of some improvements in the way that reading is being supported in prisons. As a result of our report, all prisons were asked to develop a reading strategy, and while we have seen some that have been generic and lacking in detail, in other prisons it feels like there has been a shift to seeing reading as a critical part of rehabilitation.

But some serious structural blocks still remain to providing prisoners with opportunities to improve their reading. Low staffing levels in some prisons mean that prisoners are spending too long locked up and visits to the library are often curtailed or cancelled. Problems persist with making sure that reading mentors are unlocked and have suitable space to teach, and for busy wing staff, reading is not yet seen as the priority it should be.

We recently returned to some prisons to see what progress had been made and we found some good examples of developing practice that gives us cause for optimism.

At Downview, a women’s prison in Surrey, there was an excellent librarian enabled by a committed governor and senior team. Ninety-six per cent of prisoners were members of the library and 80% had taken out a book in the last month, with each wing able to visit twice a week. Everyone was taken to the library as part of their induction, where they received a pack with a book they could keep. There were many activities, including reading groups, family reading such as Readconnect delivered by the National Literacy Trust, Storybook Mums (which allowed prisoners to make a DVD of themselves reading a story that could be sent to their children) and other reading opportunities, such as Reading Ahead, creative writing and a philosophy group. There were DVDs and audio books available as well as audio/reading books so that readers could follow the text while they listened. There was a regular newsletter which showcased not only the range of activities available, but also contained book reviews from prisoners and published prisoners’ creative writing. There were regular opportunities to hear from authors and even a literary festival. Reading groups catered for a range of tastes and abilities and there was a newly formed ‘Quick Reads’ group in partnership with the education department. The library events were well supported by officers and the regime ensured library visits and special events happened as planned. The library coordinated Shannon Trust provision, but the education provider gave one-to-one teaching for women who were pre-Entry Level or had certain difficulties, and regularly monitored progress of those below Entry Level 3.

Nottingham had the start of what promised to be a good reading strategy and showed what could be possible even within a busy reception prison. An impressive literacy lead, employed by People Plus, had introduced the new reading screener and had a detailed tracker to assess and monitor progress. She had trained Shannon Trust mentors and provided outreach to the wings and workshops. Those with the lowest reading ability were referred to phonics-trained teachers, while those more able to read, but still needing support, were picked up by Shannon Trust mentors. There was a busy library with a dynamic librarian offering craft, colouring, DVDs, Mother’s Day cards and access to kiosks, as well as books. Prisoners visited the library on induction and had access to a free book. The library was well promoted alongside wing bookshelves filled with old library stock and donations. We were told that these had been introduced because prisoners, desperate for something to read, were trying to fish books out of the slot of the library returns box. However, there were still barriers and obstacles within the wider prison; unlock of Shannon Trust mentors to work with mentees was inconsistent and rooms for mentees and teachers to use on two wings had been identified but were still not yet in use. Tellingly, the reading strategy was still in the name of the education provider rather than the prison.

These two examples show that with the commitment and drive from leaders, prisons can be places where every sort of reading thrives. Improving reading in prisons is not just about helping prisoners to get work on release, it goes much deeper. Reading provides an escape from reality, it helps us relax, reduces stress, feeds the imagination, grows empathy, helps us understand other people’s perspectives, expands vocabulary and broadens our minds.

HMI Prisons and our colleagues at Ofsted will continue to focus on the ways that prisons prioritise improving reading as part of our regular inspection focus. Reading must be not just a niche activity promoted by a few enthusiastic staff members, but an integral part of our prisons, driven by ministers, the prison service and prison leaders.

Watch the video

We have produced a video celebrating some of the successes and ongoing challenges to improving reading in prisons, with input from those working on the frontline.

Watch the video to hear Louise Johns-Shepherd (CLPE), Michelle Lawrence (Literacy Lead at HMP Nottingham), Marie Ayoola (Librarian at HMP Brixton), Akin Alleyne (Custodial Manager and Reading Champion at HMP Wormwood Scrubs), and Danny, a former prisoner, explain the vital importance of reading in prison from their own experience.