Mike Williams: Literacy leap for prisoners

By Mike Williams

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Mike Williams
Mike Williams

Towards the end of last month I found myself in very unexpected surroundings giving a speech to the 2017 Act party conference.

How this came about is an interesting story and it all added up to a rare but promising development in the normally dismal field of penal reform in New Zealand.

Some background: Howard League president Tony Gibbs and I have been running a long-term programme of raising awareness about the inability of a majority of prisoners to read and write sufficiently well enough to function as a normal human in modern society.

(Long-suffering readers of this column are amongst the victims of this tactic)

To this end we have been inviting politicians and other influential public figures to attend our Howard League prisoner literacy graduation ceremonies.

Many of our political leaders have never visited a jail or talked to a prisoner and most have no concept of the malign results of illiteracy.

These visits enable the key policy makers to realise that many prisoners are trying hard from very unpromising starts to improve themselves by gaining the very basic skill of literacy.

Last year we had a graduation at Rimutaka jail and were very fortunate to attract Bill English, then deputy prime minister, as guest speaker.

Tony Gibbs has known former Act party president John Thompson for many years and through this connection, we also invited David Seymour, the sole Act party MP.

David Seymour may be on a different side of the political fence to me, but I have been impressed with his intelligence and the diligence which he applies to issues he adopts.

At the Rimutaka graduation he chatted with a number of prisoner graduates and talked to the tutors who were there to see their students get their certificates.

Rimutaka jail is one of New Zealand's largest prisons and can accommodate more that 1000 inmates, and David Seymour asked me why, if two-thirds of the men there were statistically likely to be illiterate, were we graduating only eight prisoners.

One answer to this question is that many prisoners have such negative self-images that they do not seek to improve themselves when there appears to be no reward for doing so.

David Seymour suggested that if prisoners were offered a discount on their sentences this might be the circuit breaker that not only inspired prisoners to get the basic skills needed to get work and "go straight" on release, it might eventually reduce prisoner numbers and start addressing the serious overcrowding problem that bedevils our jails.

These thoughts plus a lot of research turned into a new Act party policy which Seymour announced at the conference I attended.

He said: "It's called Rewarding Self-Improvement in Prisons. This proposal would provide incentives, in the form of reduced sentences, for prisoners to complete basic programmes in literacy, numeracy, and driver licensing.

"Prisoners identified as having needs in these areas could score credits for progressing through and successfully completing qualifications known to provide the most significant improvements in employability on the outside. There wouldn't be participation prizes - prisoners would be assessed against National Standards, the same as in schools. They could ultimately exchange their earned credits for a maximum of six weeks shaved off per year of their sentence.

"Those prisoners who are already functionally literate, numerate, and licensed to drive, can still benefit from Act's policy. They would earn credits for training as a mentor, and then teaching other prisoners.

"Similar incentive programmes are working overseas. In the US, states that have Earned Credit Programs in prisons report a lower recidivism rate than states that do not have one. New York saw a 20 per cent lower recidivism rate among prisoners who earned early-release."

Such a strategy is also likely to be financially attractive as David Seymour went on to point out.

"They save money. A model student serving a two-year sentence could, under Act's proposal, shave 12 weeks off their sentence and save the taxpayer $14,000. And if their learning prevents future imprisonment, the saving could enter the $100,000s, which could be reinvested in educational programmes.

"And that's just for one prisoner.

"The New York Corrections Department saved $369 million in a decade thanks to their earned credit policy. A proportionate saving for New Zealand's population would be $113m for Corrections.

"The savings would be far higher if you include individuals, families, and businesses that would no longer have to face the costs of crime."

This policy announcement was universally welcomed.

The Prime Minister said that it was worth considering and Kelvin Davis MP endorsed the idea on behalf of the Labour Party. Even the "tough on crime" Sensible Sentencing Trust supported the policy.

This amounts to a great leap ahead and a triumph for common sense.

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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