Paul, a Pentonville prisoner, is dyslexic. So is one of his prison officers. But a pioneering computer-aided course is teaching them both strategies to cope with their disability. David Newnham reports
They call it Le Ville. Not La Ville, mind, but Le Ville. And it's everything you expect a Victorian prison to be. Stand at the point where five radial wings come together into one echoing hall, and what do you see through the steel bars but more steel bars, then more and more, repeating into the distance at every turn of the head. So many bars, and so much din of metal.
Make for the wing that's dead ahead, and bring out your key on a noisy chain. Clink the key and clack the lock, then open the gate and walk smartly through. Turn, shut the gate, and hear the clatter resound among the stairways and walkways, barely subsiding before you clack and clink and go on your way again.
You are being watched now, from gallery upon gallery, through bars and railings and the anti-jump nets that hang above your head. As you approach the next steel gate to repeat the same metallic ritual, white-shirted officers and track-suited inmates weigh you up. Their shouts bounce between the hard walls and mingle with the smell of dinner and disinfectant.
There is no privacy here. Each cell contains one toilet and two men. Nor is there softness among the gloss-paint walls and shiny pin-ups. As for silence - well, there is one small room...
It's primrose yellow, and around two sides are computer benches - nothing flashy, just work-surfaces on plain timber frames. Five of the six terminals are occupied, and the men who sit at them are typing rows of words which appear in large type on the screens in front of them. "Grab crab drab..." One of the men turns to the tutor, a young woman called Jane Amphlett. "What does this word 'drab' mean?" And the others continue typing, slowly and steadily... "kettle kettle kettle".
Paul calls up a red graphic that fills the top of his screen. "This is my accuracy score," he explains, proud that most of the indicators have made it to the top of the page. "And this is my speed in words per minute." He shows me a green graph whose fluctuations chart his growing confidence.
Paul talks about "modules", the word-lists that for 60 minutes each day, three days each week, have demanded his attention in a way that packing plastic airline cutlery or assembling bath plugs in the workshop never could. He is 27, and will begin the next millennium in this echoing north London jail. "But it's quiet in this room," he says. "It just takes you away for an hour." There's more to it than that, though. Paul would, after all, be earning more money in the workshop. A series of posters round the walls gives some clue as to what's going on. Here is James Whale and there is Eddie Izzard. Margi Clarke and Lord Rogers share a wall with Benjamin Zephaniah. What do they have in common with each other, and with each of the inmates in this room? All are dyslexic.
"Einstein was dyslexic," says Amphlett. "It's nothing to do with intelligence. The word 'stupid' is banned in this room."
There's no getting away from it, though: too many dyslexic children are dismissed as stupid, by others at first, and finally by themselves. With their disability unrecognised, and their slowness with words and numbers attributed to laziness or "an attitude problem", they fall behind at school and quickly become disaffected. Some will turn to crime and end up in prison. There they will find that up to a third of their fellow inmates will also be dyslexic, an astonishing figure given that, among the general population, the proportion is thought to be nearer 4 per cent.
Amphlett is worried that such statistics can be misused. She is anxious to point out that there is no causal link between dyslexia and criminality and says that diminished self-esteem is the factor which puts so many dyslexic childen on the wrong track.
"Many of the students on the course were excluded from school by the time they were 11 or 12 so they've already had a very negative learning experience. And a lot come from rather anti-educational backgrounds. But this course has given them confidence, and some have opted to go on to English classes here. One wants to get into FE college when he leaves, and pick up where he left off years ago."
The Pentonville Prison Dyslexia Project was set up six months ago by the prison's education service - run on contract by Amersham and Wycombe College - in partnership with the British Dyslexia Association and local dyslexia groups. A dozen inmates are signed up for this pioneering course and a dozen more are on the waiting list. Most speak of their relief when, at the end of a detailed assessment in the prison, they were told that their literacy problems had a cause and that the cause had a name.
Dyslexia can impair auditory, visual and motor functions, and people may be affected in one, two or all three ways to varying degrees. The Pentonville Project is not only unique in tackling the disability among the prison population, but it is also makes use of a relatively new multi-sensory technique, the "Touch-type, Read and Spell" computer-aided course, in which students work through a highly structured and repetitive programme at their own pace, with the instant, non-judgmental feedback such technology can provide.
Amphlett explains: "It works on the visual, auditory and motor factors simultaneously. For example, dyslexic people often find it harder to read print on a white background. You can test them by putting different tinted sheets over the words until you find the one that's best for them, and then changing the background colour on the computer."
Headphones can help students associate the written with the spoken word, and a keyboard gets round the handwriting difficulties many dyslexic people find insurmountable. It looks monotonous and unappealing, keying in chains of words, prompted by a voice in the headphones or guided by the screen image of a hand on a keyboard. But the results are impressive. Students report that the words no longer "run away" with them, or "jump about on the page", or appear "scary".
They will never be cured of dyslexia, but they may come away with a strategy for coping with it, and some may also acquire the ability to touch-type or the confidence to learn more about IT. And when Amphlett follows up the keyboard sessions with discussions about the words themselves - about meaning, context and grammar - then anything can happen.
"Thrillers are just boring now," says Paul, a copy of Catcher In The Rye in his hand. Jane prompts him: "What others have you read?" And he reels off a list - Catch 22, Crime And Punishment..."
Guiding me back through the clanging world of hard walls and slamming doors, Jane Broadfoot, education co-ordinator at Pentonville, explains the nuts and bolts of the project - how pound;8,500 from the National Year of Reading got them the equipment, how the prison's education budget so far only pays for the tutor, and how she found the old storeroom and persuaded the works department to fit it up and give it a lick of paint.
"It's all about stopping recidivism," she says. "It's about helping offenders stay on the right side of the law when they leave us."
Her aim is to reach all the dyslexic inmates among Pentonville's 1,100 men, to give them self-confidence, a better hope of employment and a way out of crime. And her dream is that others will follow where Pentonville has led.
"Every day I get three calls from prisons that are interested in the course. And every couple of weeks I show parties of people what we're doing."
Arriving back in the great central hall, she tells me how this place was built as a model prison, and later I read that its light, glass-roofed interior put early visitors in mind of "a bit of the Crystal Palace, stripped of all its contents".
That was in the 1840s, when hard labour and strict separation of inmates were the latest keys to rehabilitation. But the radiating wings still strike visitors as bright and airy. And today, Le Ville is once again setting an example.
Nobody at Pentonville speaks more highly of the dyslexia project than prison officer Ken Thomas (pictured right). After a decade in the service, he was on the point of quitting because of his own dyslexia. Having tackled the Touch-type, Read and Spell course alongside inmates, he now has enough confidence to sit a promotion exam.
When Thomas left school, his careers officer advised him to find something that didn't involve writing. He tried a variety of jobs, always leaving when the question of promotion came up. Then he joined the prison service.
"All you had to do was a tick-box test," he says. "I had no problem with that, and for the first two or three years the job required very little writing, so I could always find ways of disguising my dyslexia."
But soon his colleagues began to wonder why he wasn't going for promotion. "There's a technical paper and two written papers in the exam," he says, "and I would have found it easier to climb Everest than do the written papers. So I always found excuses not to take it."
At the same time, the job he was doing began to involve more written work and greater use of computers. Thomas reckoned it was time to look elsewhere.
Then by chance his wife, who is in the probation service, came across the dyslexia project when she was being shown round the prison one day. She persuaded Ken to visit the education department, and to his delight, they let him join.
"It's been brilliant," he says. "My confidence has gone through the roof. I've tried all manner of things in the past, but nothing had worked. It's given me a new lease of life.
"I still make basic mistakes with my English, but it's getting an awful lot better."
Written English has always been his problem - although he was literate, his writing was painfully slow. "When people think slow," he says, "they think 'thick'. Eventually you convince yourself that you're not as good as the others, even though you knew you could do the job.
"I can see how frustrating it is for the inmates. But having me do the course has been a boost for them, too. They can't just blame the dyslexia any more. They can see that it's possible to be dyslexic and still get on in the world."