"Learning to read represents a
significant turning point in anyone’s life, and may be the one thing
that makes a difference to help people in prison turn their lives
“Every time a prisoner learns to read, a life changes. This is one of the
most effective programmes running in prisons today”
Sir Jackie Stewart
"Tough on crime and the causes of crime
J.K.Rowling on a visit to
HMP Edinburgh in 2008. J.K.R. is a great supporter of the Shannon
Trust Reading Plan and signed a copy of TBT with this comment:
of the most
important books I have ever signed..."
“The Shannon Trust Reading Plan (Toe
by Toe) really can perform miracles. It’s the best thing that ever happened
to me, even though it meant coming to prison to learn to read.”
Prisoner at a large ‘Category C’
prison in the West Midlands
send Keda my love. We have 46 lads a day on Toe by Toe and all
learning to read thanks to her and 15 unpaid and enthusiastic mentors who
get equally as much out of it..."
Jo Stoneley -
Education Officer, HMYOI Brinsford - July 2011
An update on the use of
Toe by Toe in prisons in the UK
Christopher Morgan's prison project is
going from strength to strength. His charitable foundation, The
Shannon Trust, is financed by proceeds from sales of a book, The Invisible Crying Tree
and donations. The Invisible Crying Tree is a
record of the correspondence between Chris and a 'lifer' in the British prison
system, Tom Shannon. It makes fascinating reading and I doubt that anyone
could read it and not be moved by the plight of this prisoner. It is available in hardback and paperback versions.
Trust provides copies of Toe by Toe to prisons free of charge and, once the
scheme is up and running, the administration is all done by the prisoners
themselves and prison officers only need to loosely monitor the process.
In many schools in the U.K
Toe by Toe is used
in a 'buddy system' where older, fluent readers take younger students through
the manual and, in so doing, build up the self-esteem of both parties. It
was this aspect of the scheme that first caught Chris' attention. For some
time he had been looking for a meaningful way of helping prisoners such as
Tom Shannon and a buddy system using
Toe by Toe seemed to fit the bill. Here
was something he felt could be used in prisons where time is one commodity
not in short supply - at least for the prisoners themselves. Literate prisoners
were to act as mentors to illiterate inmates in short daily sessions. It took
a long time to get a pilot project going but Chris kept plugging away and
eventually succeeded in getting one established in HMP Wandsworth. This is
probably the toughest prison in the country and Chris knew that - if he could
make it work there - it could work anywhere.
The good news is that there are now more than
200 graduates from the programme at Wandsworth and - remarkably enough
- only 5 prisoners have dropped out. These are men who have been covering
up the fact they could not read all their lives. In fact, one graduate at
Wandsworth is 60 years old and one man on the project at Rye Hill is 70! One
well-educated inmate of Wandsworth who acted as a mentor wrote in the Christmas
edition of the prison newsletter: "
when the chance appeared, I
jumped. To be able to put something to use, something usually taken for granted,
is my chance to use the time, so often wasted, spent in prison. And an opportunity
for me to feel good about myself too." Chris has ambitions to introduce
the scheme to every prison in the land and it is slowly beginning to spread.
HMP Bullingdon now has 6 out of 7 wings on the scheme largely through the
efforts and commitment of Officer Healy who had travelled to HMP Wandsworth
to see the project at first hand.
This is not to say that there have been no problems,
of course. Britain now has a record prison population of 80,000 - the
largest in Western Europe. The female prison population
has increased by 25% in one year. This appalling overcrowding and attendant
problems means that prison officers have little time left to devote to educational
initiatives. Education and rehabilitation cannot receive high priority in
such conditions. Simply finding a suitable quiet place in a prison for
Toe by Toe sessions is proving problematic such is the shortage of space. Prisoners
are also frequently transferred around the country's prisons and this often
disrupts the scheme though Chris is working hard to set things up so that
students can take their books with them and - hopefully - find mentors in
the new prison to carry on.
Prison Education departments are generally supportive
of the scheme but they have to justify their budgets in the only language
that the government understands i.e. exam results and - specifically - GCSE
passes. This, of course, is very frustrating as - to our minds at least -
it is far more important to get the majority of prisoners functionally literate.
However, the scheme is set up in such a way as to make minimal demands on
Education Departments. Chris asks them to run a short (2 - 4 hour) course
for volunteer mentors to give them a few guidelines and to judge their suitability
as mentors though the Toe by Toe system itself is largely self-explanatory.
He also asks the prison to pay mentors 'top whack' wages for their time spent
teaching if they have had to sacrifice their normal work. Unfortunately, prisons
are very macho places. The threat of bullying is a constant problem and -
on some wings - it is positively dangerous to show any sort of weakness. Thus,
prisoners who have been covering up their inability to read all their lives
often find it very hard to come forward. However, once 2 or 3 do so, that
problem tends to solve itself and soon they become proud to be seen walking
around with their little red books. It is also very important that the wing
officers should believe in the project and, if someone in authority has a
positive 'can-do' attitude like Officer Lodge at HMP Wandsworth and Officer
Healy at HMP Bullingdon, the scheme has a much better chance of getting established.
In October 2000, HMP Wandsworth's Neil Lodge
launched the Toe by Toe project, a one-to-one literacy scheme in which
prisoners teach other prisoners to read. More than 200 inmates have completed
the course and have subsequently continued with further education.
"The gains from the project include raising prisoners' self-esteem and
giving them a chance to consider alternatives to crime"
So what of the future? 67% of prisoners do not
have the reading and writing skills necessary to do 80% of the jobs in the
labour market. By the time the majority of men are ready for release from
British prisons they are - if they weren't before - bitter, hate-ridden individuals
with little in the way of a future. Many, of course, are back within months
of release. The cost of the prison service is enormous (£1.4 billion
pounds in 1998) and - especially bearing in mind the quote from Mr Blair at
the start of this page - you have to wonder if society is getting value for
These stark facts are not in any way a revelation,
of course. Educationalists have recognised for decades that the proportion
of prisoners who are dyslexic is far higher than in the population as a whole.
Recent articles in the TES point out how concerned the government is about
the problem of truancy and its effects on society as a whole. This begs the
question: what proportion of truants are similarly affected by dyslexia? One
can only imagine what torture school must be for a bright child categorised
- if not by their teachers by their peers in the playground - as 'thick'.
Is it any wonder - when so many schools have little idea how to cope with
those unable to master the skill of reading their own language - that children
opt out in the only way open to them? Of course, not all truants become criminals
and end up in the prison system though it seems clear that a significant proportion
of them do. A recent Observer article says that "half of all male prisoners
have previously been expelled from school and a third were regular truants,
meaning thousands have no qualifications at all."
This is the situation that Chris Morgan is determined
to do something about. Cynicism is such an easy trap to fall into but an interview
with Chris would convince the most hardened cynic that altruism does exist
in the world. We can only wish him well.
For more information please see
The Shannon Trust