Teaching prisoners to read and write may reduce our rate of incarceration, an expert says.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins presented certificates to three inmates at the Hawke's Bay Regional Prison yesterday who had graduated from the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform literacy programme.

Hawke's Bay has the best record in the country for graduates of the programme, having seen more than 80 prisoners complete the 12-week course since its inception in 2012.

Friends, whanau and members of the league all gathered at the prison to celebrate the men's achievements.


A graduate of the programme said he took part to become a better man. "I wanted to change, when I started I could only read at the level of a 12-year-old."

He said, while the course was challenging, it was equally rewarding.

"My motivation came from wanting to make a better me."

He said, thanks to the course, he is now making long-term plans and setting long-term goals.

He hoped to become a builder upon his release.

His tutor described him as a a shy young man short on positive life experiences.

"I was amazed by his commitment, so many drop out but he persisted."

However, he said the exchange of knowledge wasn't a one-way street.

"You don't teach without learning."

President of the Howard League Tony Gibbs said a simple solution to the alarming incarceration statistics was simply greater attention to literacy.

"As a society, we can't simply wash our hands of the problem once the key is turned on a prisoner," Mr Gibbs said.

Ms Collins recognised the importance of the Howard League's literacy programme for inmates wanting to reform their lives, and expressed the significance of being able to read and write. "Nearly 65 per cent of the men and women in prison are below NCEA level on literacy and numeracy.

She said the programme makes a significant difference in people's lives.

"Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, prisoners are limited in their ability to gain qualifications and secure employment," Ms Collins said.

She said so much positive work is being done in one of the most thankless jobs available.

"Anyone can throw rocks from the sidelines, it's the ones that are making a difference who I listen to."

The Howard League for Penal Reform was founded in 1924. The league has expanded across the country with several hundred people completing the literacy course.