Skip to main content

Freed from the prison of illiteracy

Keda Cowling is a mini-bestseller writer, but you won't know of her work unless you have been either teaching someone to read, or learning to read with her little red book by your side.

Chairman Mao's little red book may have been revolutionary in that grand, sound-bite way that politics has, but Cowling's work is having an incredible impact, very quietly, inside prison walls.

Her book is a reading manual called Toe by Toe: a book crammed with small text, boxes and lists. It might seem formidable to anyone with literacy problems, but it's being used in many British schools, where poor readers are paired with senior pupils in a "buddy system".

Cowling has shown that you do not necessarily need colour pictures and graphics to get people reading. But her book's existence is not enough to make it be noticed and widely adopted "inside".

There are still hurdles in the way; finding a way over these is the task before Nick Jewitt, who travels through the prison system, liaising with staff to find ways of setting up the Toe by Toe process. To call him a crusader would be wrong: he is not fighting a campaign.

But he could be described as an ambassador. With his quiet, professional manner, he searches for the best ways to use the communication channels and adapts to situations when he has to. If anyone can place Toe by Toe in the prison system, he is the man to do it, and he's succeeding.

The book and associated reading scheme form a strategy for tackling illiteracy within our 70,000-strong prison population, and all this is guided by the Shannon Trust, an organisation springing from correspondence between lifer Tom Shannon and writer Christopher Morgan.

They started to write to each other in 1992, and the result was a book, The Invisible Crying Tree (Doubleday, 1996). Reading that book, we witness a friendship being fostered, but we also experience a man freeing his words, finding a voice and a fluency with language through the habit of writing letters.

Maybe Tom still mis-spelled the odd word in 1993, but that does not matter.

He writes with style and assurance.

The scheme built around Cowling's book is invading Britain's prisons. More than 600 prisoners have now learned to read, and another 2,000 are learning.

In Lincoln prison, Pauline Tait, head of learning and skills, is working with the Shannon Trust to start the scheme. The first task has been to find the right mentors, because Toe by Toe works by pairing an inmate with a mentor (usually other inmates, sometimes officers).

Our prisons are in desperate need of this, and we have to wonder why it took so long to be introduced. It costs the taxpayer nothing. The book takes around six months to complete. People gather some self-esteem and tend to behave in a more acceptable way in the prison regime.

The Shannon Trust points out that 48 per cent of our prisoners do not read.

Many people inside who have problems with words often try to hide this, avoiding group work and any situation that might highlight their problem.

It is not difficult to see how crucially important this fundamental lack of communicative ability is to the process of rehabilitation.

A typical situation in the weekly process of Toe by Toe is that inmate and mentor sit down for their daily 20-minute session with the book. There are five sessions a week, always one-to-one.

It works, as long as there is trust and rapport from the start. I have seen a similar partnership in my Storybook Dads work, in which a slow reader is often helped to learn a simple story to read and record for other children.

There are all kinds of obstacles, from working in the centre of a turbulence of noise, to simply finding the right time and place within the discipline and order of the daily prison regime.

It is not impossible. Prison work in the arts or learning is all about finding a way through protocol and being determined to reach some kind of compromise.

In Dartmoor prison, it has been said that the programme sold itself to the prisoners. One factor there has perhaps been in the agreed payment of mentors, but mentoring is usually voluntary.

In HMP Styal there are six pairs working through the book and, after the first cycle of work, four mentees stayed the course. Regular meetings of the mentors also help to keep the progress of the work logged and discussed as the pairings go forward and the pages turn.

When a person has landed up in prison, it may often be that a contributory reason for that "fall" is a lack of literacy skills.

Professionals in prisons need help to lift some of the inmates back into the world of work, family and self-confidence. Freeing the words that need to be written or spoken is the first step, and Keda Cowling and the Shannon Trust have found a way to do this.

I don't consider it too grand and dramatic to say that silences in communities are always dangerous, and never more so than when the silence is in the individual: a wordless place that sees the need for words but does not know the way to acquire them.

Stephen Wade is the writer in residence at HMP Lincoln

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you