Literacy skills and needs of inmates of Victorian prisons

Criminology Research Council grant ; (15/82)

The project took the form of structured interview and discussion with 62 inmates in five institutions in the State of Victoria. The institutions surveyed were the medium-security prisons at Bendigo, Castlemaine and Fairlea and the youth training centres at Winlaton and Malmsbury.

The interviews sought information on three areas:

  1. the prisoners' appraisal of their own reading and writing abilities and the value they placed in such activities;
  2. their opinions and suggestions on the ways in which reading and writing could be effectively taught within the prison context;
  3. the role that reading and writing could play in their personal and vocational development with a view towards their eventual rehabilitation in society.

Additionally, 34 education officers were questioned regarding the range and proportion of requests made by prisoners with regard to literacy education and at Bendigo prison a standard reading comprehension test (GAPADOL) was conducted with 94 per cent of the prisoner population.

The report highlights the perceived importance of literacy education in prisons and detention centres. It provides a resource of recorded information on general and specific literacy capabilities of prisoners as well as the diverse range of literacy activities to be found.

Prisoners who perceived themselves to be what is commonly termed 'functionally illiterate' accepted that the remedy rested with themselves. Literacy was seen as important in its capacity to permit correspondence with the world outside and, through education courses, the chance to learn and consequently change in status by becoming better equipped vocationally.

However, the distinction between purely functional literacy and its more expressive and creative forms was found to have questionable relevance in the incarcerating context. The values placed upon reading and writing as a form of communication and self-expression were universally high. Literacy was seen to preserve the integrity of individuals and provide them with a private and reflective opportunity to explore choices and options within themselves. In that respect, all literacy activity within I prisons may be termed as functional -since it is ultimately functional to remain sane.

Prisoners made valuable suggestions as to the manner in which literacy education could be improved. Simple programs concerned with the mechanics of spelling and handwriting were insufficient. Study needed to be related to personal and vocational needs in order to extend the nature of literacy in a meaningful way. Greater accessibility to books and magazines was required.

Of education courses in general, there was a clear desire for more relevance and a wider range of study opportunities. Courses needed external accreditation to provide an acceptable qualification on release. Although correspondence courses were sometimes useful in this regard, teacher response and study advice were always greatly sought after. The need for direct communication with teachers, frequently voiced as 'a chance to sit down and talk' about work in progress, was the most important requirement.

Some pertinent observations about the staffing of education courses in prisons were made. Teachers have to be seen (and need to see themselves) as completely distinct from custodial staff. This implies that educational activities require to be designed for students and not for prisoners. Currently there was a tendency to regard 'doing education' as synonymous with 'doing time' in that courses were employed to keep prisoners occupied in an acceptable, but preferably joyless, activity while serving out their sentences. Where education staff had accepted a role definition as it custodians, it apparently became inappropriately ideological to engage in coursework relevant to student needs or to attempt to sustain a teacher-student relationship designed to achieve learning in the customary professional manner.

Prisoners perceived that literacy proficiency played a strong role in their personal development in that they were enabled to come to terms with fears and feelings through writing.

Reading provided prisoners with an imaginative release to other places and other times -finding out what they needed to know both about themselves and the world. Since it may be observed that any release, even imaginative, runs contrary to the controlled and punitive nature of penal institutions, literacy education has predominantly been limited to the mechanics by general consent. Specific requests for assistance with spelling, handwriting or training to read faster are accepted - and made because they are know to be acceptable. But literacy education needs to go beyond fragmentary responses to surface requests.

Creation of an independent learning style for both student and teacher is seen as the proper aim of education. The aim of literacy education should be to put people in touch with literature beyond their immediate situation and experience and to help them cope with the demands of their environment. The data from the interviews collected in this report should strengthen the sensitivity and the knowledge of those interested in educational rather than punitive ventures.