Two-thirds of prisoners can't do everyday literacy tasks

More than 60 per cent of New Zealand prisoners do not have the skills to complete everyday literacy tasks.
Viv Posselt/Fairfax NZ

More than 60 per cent of New Zealand prisoners do not have the skills to complete everyday literacy tasks.

Less than 40 per cent of New Zealand prisoners would be able to read an employment contract or tenancy agreement if they were freed today, figures from the Department of Corrections show.

The figures, obtained under the Official Information Act, reveal just 37 per cent of prisoners assessed under a national framework between July last year and August this year were able to complete everyday literacy tasks, while 27 per cent were in critical need of education.

Corrections assessed more than 8000 of New Zealand's 9500 prisoners, with 63 per cent deemed to be below a basic standard of literacy.

Inmates from Rimutaka Prison graduate from their literacy programme, watched by Howard League for Penal Reform Patron ...
Cameron Burnell/Fairfax NZ

Inmates from Rimutaka Prison graduate from their literacy programme, watched by Howard League for Penal Reform Patron Dame Catherine Tizard and Mike Williams.

That meant they could not read material such as children's school reports or documents such as tenancy or contract agreements.

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Corrections Minister Judith Collins said the figures were a concern, given the clear link between unemployment and reoffending.

Convicted double murderer John Barlow, pictured with his wife Angela, says more education is needed in New Zealand prisons.
Kevin Stent

Convicted double murderer John Barlow, pictured with his wife Angela, says more education is needed in New Zealand prisons.

"Literacy and numeracy skills are essential for people to undertake everyday tasks and acquire the skills necessary to find sustained employment.

"However, many prisoners have had limited access to these opportunities or fallen between the cracks during their schooling, making them vulnerable to going down the path of criminal activity."

Corrections assessed prisoners using the Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool, which broke down competency into six stages.

Those under stage four were deemed to be below the level of competency required to attempt NCEA Level 1 unit standards.

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Of the 63 per cent under that mark, 27 per cent were placed in stages one and two, with their ability ranging from understanding basic words and symbols at the lowest end, to understanding short phrases or sentences at the highest end.

Those prisoners now had access to up to 100 hours of intensive literacy support.

A further 36 per cent of prisoners were categorised as level three, meaning they could tackle tasks such as reading more difficult words and working out the meaning of unknown words.

Those prisoners were supported by online learning tools at 14 of New Zealand's 17 prisons.

Corrections was working to extend those programmes to all prisons, as well as increase the number of websites it could use.

There were also other programmes available, such as Secure Online Learning, and assistance from the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The department also provided trades training and rehabilitative programmes across its sites, but they were of little use if prisoners could not read or write, Collins said.

Former prisoner John Barlow, who spent 15 years in Rimutaka Prison after being convicted of a double murder in 1996, said there needed to be more education for prisoners.

Barlow, who always maintained his innocence, took on the role of mentoring other prisoners during his sentence, and said there was a perception everyone behind bars lacked intelligence.

"There are people in prison who are not very bright, but there are people in the general population who are not very bright, as well," he said. 

"One of the things I found was, while doing a bit of study, the amazing leaps they made so rapidly.

"They're no less intelligent – they've just never been in a situation where they've been taught."

Remedial English was available but that was not enough, Barlow said.

"Prisons should just about be scholastic institutions – for those who are willing to take advantage of it."

 - Stuff

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