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"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 around."
                                                                                                         J.K. Rowling

“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…" Tony Blair

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:               

"One 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

"Please 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

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.

The Shannon 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"
Prison officer Neil Lodge

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 money.

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.

See how the Shannon Trust is progressing in The Shannon Trust Newsletter

For more information please see The Shannon Trust website