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Teaching behind bars

JESS ETHERIDGE
Last updated 05:00 28/03/2014
Inmate Tutor
GIVING BACK: Carl and Sue are volunteer literacy teachers at Auckland Prison in Paremoremo.

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A volunteer fluent in Samoan and English is changing the lives of people behind bars.

Carl is a literacy tutor at Auckland Prison in Paremoremo, working one-on-one with inmates who do not know how to read English.

He grew up in Samoa and didn't speak English until he moved to Australia at age 6.

Carl struggled for two years to get his head around the foreign sounds and words but it was his teacher who helped him get through.

Now the retired special needs teacher wants to pay it forward because he can sympathise with the difficult task.

Carl began volunteering at the prison as part of a literacy programme, run by the New Zealand Howard League.

He started working with a shy Samoan inmate.

"The officers in his block said he was very withdrawn, he wasn't communicating with anybody, he was just sitting by himself."

The prisoner was not completely illiterate, just embarrassed at his level of knowledge, Carl says.

"Once they know I speak Samoan, the barriers come down," he says.

After a couple of lessons the change was noticeable and the inmate's confidence grew week by week, Carl says.

North Shore woman Sue, also a retired teacher, says helping a Tongan inmate learn the words to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah so he could sing it was a beautiful experience.

Carl and Sue tailor the lessons and material to each inmate, depending on their level of literacy.

They work with inmates of all ethnicities and say they would do it for anyone who needs help.

"It's rather selfish, actually, because you get a lot out of it yourself. You feel you're just helping your own people but I don't really look upon them as if I'm doing it because they're Samoan. I'm doing it because they don't understand English. I've been there, I know what it's like so I'm helping them," Carl says.

"I would do it for anybody."

Sue says she knows their work is helping inmates and their families.

"I would love to see prisoners not ever going back."

The Howard League has 100 volunteers working across Auckland's prisons, and four working at Paremoremo.

Chief executive Mike Williams says illiteracy contributes to recidivist offending but teaching people how to read will increase their employment and life opportunities.

It will also help the taxpayer because inmates can train to work and contribute to the economy, he says.

Graduation ceremonies are held for those who become competent.

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The Howard League is looking for volunteers.

Mr Williams assures safety is a priority, with induction training available and security guards on duty during sessions.

Email mikew@ihug.co.nz or visit nzhowardleague.org.nz.

- North Shore Times

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