Three Hawke's Bay Prison inmates have received the thumbs-up from the Governor-General.

Sir Jerry Mateparae spent yesterday afternoon in the jail, presenting certificates for the prisoners' success in a literacy programme run by the New Zealand Howard League for penal reform.

Prison manager George Massingham suggested yesterday's visit may have been the first by an "in-post" Governor-General, but the man himself wasn't so sure.

He was sure of one thing, as he looked towards the three inmates and family members, he said that poor reading and writing skills pave the pathway to the offending which lands young men in jail. Sir Jerry commended the men for making a commitment 12 weeks ago to learn, to help open the door to a better future for themselves and their children.

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One had his son in his lap as Sir Jerry said: "Today has seen the results, for not only have you made that commitment, to your families as well as your tutors, you have by sticking with it completed it successfully.

"You have learned not just about reading, but you have learned about yourselves," he said, hoping the men's achievements would be an inspiration to others. "Nearly 1 million New Zealanders struggle to read," he said.

"Not being able to read is like a padlock for your opportunity. Finishing it gives you a hold of the key."

Among those present was former Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard, who as patron of the New Zealand Howard League said she was one Governor-General who had been in a prison.

Others included league president Tony Gibbs, chief executive Mike Williams, major sponsor Rebecca Turner, strong supporter Lady Deborah Holmes, and tutors of the three men. Mr Gibbs said the league has 300 voluntary tutors throughout the country, with projects in the 15 prisons. He said it was an honour to have the Governor-General acknowledge "what we've been doing for some years now".

"But," he told the men, "this is your day, this is your achievement. I want you to be proud."

Each spoke briefly, thanking their tutors, while Mr Gibbs thanked Mr Massingham, noting a claim that Hawke's Bay Prison has more graduates than any other prison. The Governor-General said his visit was "fulfilment of a promise" he made to the Howard League, and it was rewarded in seeing the men receive their certificates.

"If it means a lot to them, it means a lot to us," he said. "A lot of people are here [in prison] because they can't read."