Mike Williams and the Howard League gives prisoners a second chance
He has dressed specially for the occasion - a traditional costume and jandals on this winter's day. A proud and handsome man, he clutches a certificate and a brand new Collins dictionary. He stands soldier-straight before the audience to offer thanks, raises his eyes to the sky. And then he starts to cry.
The certificate marks his graduation as a competent reader. At the start, he had a reading age of an 8-and-a-half-year-old. Now he's nearing age 11 - enough to know the road code, enough to maybe get his driver's licence. He is 27 and he had to go to prison before gaining this passport to a better world.
He's got another two years before he gets out. And when he does he will be able to read to his two children. "When I used to pick up a book, all I looked at were the pictures. Now I can read the words. It puts a smile on my face." His favourite book? "I would like to say Woman's Day. But I'll tell you Men's Health."
Due to his current domicile, we can not identify this man, nor his two colleagues who graduated from the Spring Hill Corrections Facility literacy programme with him.
But there are names associated with this success story that we can cite. Among them is retired corporate colossus Tony Gibbs, now president of the Howard League For Penal Reform, who himself shed a tear at today's ceremony, as did most attendees. "This is your day; your day of having achieved something," he tells these men. "So be proud. And don't come back - unless it's to teach someone else to read."
There is Mike Williams too. The former Labour party president is now chief executive of the Howard League.
It is these two, together with an army of volunteers and the fulltime services of a retired teacher, who have introduced the league's literacy programme in prisons around the country. Its success has spawned another programme: one designed to turn potential inmates around before they reach the prison doors.
Williams may have long left his leading role in the Labour Party. But he still has the persuasive oratorial and fundraising skills born of a life in politics.
Days before the Spring Hill ceremony, he seated himself in his favourite cafe to explain his current vocation. He starts by reciting author Neil Gaiman: "How do these people [private prison providers] plan how many cells they will need? Easy: you just find out how many 11 year olds can't read or write."
As it happens, the numbers don't add up well for New Zealand's prison population. Williams snaps out the stats. "At least 50 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate. What that effectively means is they can't read the Road Code. And the Road Code is pitched at 10 years."
Worse still, in New Zealand there is a formidably high incarceration rate and recidivism rate - 30 per cent higher incarceration than Australia; double that of Finland and Germany. When they get out, they often go back.
He gleaned that information after joining the Howard League at his old mate Gibbs' invitation in 2011. Back then, the league had been seen as "a handful of elderly lawyers who met infrequently and abused Corrections," says Williams.
He spent an Easter weekend Googling "penal reform". And he did a few arithmetical calculations himself. "I thought 'let's say 50 per cent of prisoners are illiterate. At any given time there are between 12,000 and 20,000 retired school teachers'. So what I suggested to Tony was we put two and two together and make five."
Gibbs deemed the idea great. They took it to the Department of Corrections, who also agreed. Corrections agreed to pay the salary of retired literacy professional Anne Brown, who custombuilt the course.
And they began an experiment at Hawke's Bay Regional Corrections Facility.
"We were worried that [signing up to the programme] might be seen as an admission that you could not read. Or that you were a cissy. But just about everywhere we do it, there's a queue," says Williams.
The key characteristic is it's one-on-one training. But for Brown, the programme is staffed entirely by volunteers. There's also a peer-to-peer programme where inmates teach each other.
There's no set time to complete the programme; inmates qualify when they can fluently read a children's book onto a CD. Since its introduction in 2012, about 100 men have graduated from the Hawke's Bay facility. The programme now runs in 15 prisons around the country. (At one of them, former Auckland Heart of the City head Alex Swney - jailed in 2015 for a $4 million fraud - is reaching out to help others on the inside.) Graduation ceremonies such as the one witnessed at Spring Hill are regular events.
Now the league wants to keep men and women them out of prison in the first place. So let's hear some more stats first. Williams gleaned these from former Labour MP, now Waipareira Trust head, John Tamihere. "I banged into him in Hammer Hardware in Te Atatu. He told me about 65 per cent of Maori who are in prison start their penal career with a driving offence.
"It's not just literacy," continues Williams, "they don't have a legal car, they don't know how to get a birth certificate, they don't have a bank account. And if they go to jail they'll get recruited into a gang and learn how to cook P."
So another programme began, again under the jurisdiction of the Howard League. This one identifies second-time offenders who have clocked up two offences related to not having a drivers licence and are on probation. Next step, prison beckons - unless they mend their ways.
The programme teaches probationees the rudiments of reading, together with the intricacies of obtaining a licence.
"Not only are these people subtracted from the justice system, a lot are subtracted from the benefit system. In terms of bang for buck it's hugely effective."
The league costs these sessions out at $1000 per person, compared with the $2000 a week it costs to keep someone inside.
Again, the initial programme was launched in Hawke's Bay. This month it will also be rolled out in Waitakere, courtesy of $100,000 from Department of Corrections funding. Meanwhile, the Land Transport Authority has picked up the tab for the continuation of the Hawke's Bay driver licensing programme.
"They're halfway towards getting a programme in south Auckland too," says Williams. "So if anyone writes me a cheque for $50,000, we'll do one in south Auckland."
Clearly, he still talks the sort of fundraising talk that powered him through all those years as Labour's main man. Equally clearly, there is life after the party's over, although Williams hasn't really left it totally behind. He is currently helping raise funds to get a documentary made on Helen Clark - working title A Day in the Life of Helen. "Helen sent me an email and said 'Gaylene Preston is doing a documentary; can you find some funding'. So I'm still fundraising for Helen."
He resigned as president in 2009. "When we got beaten I rang a mentor of mine in Australia and said 'what do we do?' He said 'get out of the way and let someone else do it; shut your mouth for two years'."
And so he did.
Was that hard?
"Not really. I didn't have much to say. And there was also a bit of woundlicking to do."
As it happens, there would come a time when the business of having nothing to say would be a very physical reality. The notebook on the cafe table, adorned with a map of the London underground, bears a wobbly scrawl inside that reads 'will I be able to talk?"
This is the illustration of Williams' recent neardeath crisis.
It started when he took himself off to a rheumatologist last year. He'd been experiencing pains in his wrists and knees. And then he found himself out of breath with chest pains after an unplanned hike up a few flights of stairs.
"The rheumatologist said 'you don't need me; you need a cardiologist'."
Indeed he did. In no time at all he was in Auckland Hospital, undergoing major heart surgery: a quadruple bypass and one valve replacement. "Which is pretty much what happened to Len Brown," he says
Somewhere during the hospital stay, complications set in. He needed a tracheotomy, which involved the insertion of a breathing tube down his throat. Even when it was removed, there was some damage, hence the spindly handwritten query to his surgeon.
His fears were unfounded, although his voice is, on occasion, scratchy - such as today at Spring Hill when he apologises for its rasping quality during his address to the graduating trio.
They aren't the only ones with the chance of making a fresh start: Williams says he got one too after his hospitalisation
The way he sees it, the heart business was the third crisis in his 66 years. There was the incident on August 13, 1977 when he was renovating a house in Norfolk St, Ponsonby.
Something went wrong; he was electrocuted. "My heart stopped for six to nine minutes. I was very lucky."
And there was the polio incident when he was seven. As with last year, he was confined to a hospital bed. His mother wasn't allowed to visit (she was pregnant at the time); he only saw his father, clad in a face mask, from a distance.
"But an elderly nursing sister would come and read Ivanhoe to me by my bedside. As far as she knew she was risking her life for me."
The kindness of strangers. It's what he's dishing out now.
The male graduate at the beginning of this story stopped his crying and pulled himself up straight during his speech. He finished by using his right hand to pat himself on his left shoulder. "I'm so proud of myself standing here," he beamed. And then he strode off stage.
After the ceremony, the graduates gathered with their families and tutors and Corrections staff to feast on spring rolls and bagels and minihamburgers before they returned to their units. And their books.
● To volunteer as a literacy tutor (you do not have to have a formal teaching qualification) email Mike Williams at email@example.com
- Sunday Star Times