When Jessica was sent to prison she couldn't read or write, and numeracy was a struggle.

Today she stood proudly, shook the Prime Minister's hand and accepted a certificate that marked her greatest achievement in life - the inmate can now read, and she loves it.

Jessica was one of six inmates recognised at a special ceremony today at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo for passing either literacy and numeracy, or beekeeping courses.

She said she'd never been able to read or write well and had had "a hard time" in life because of it.

Advertisement

But since completing the literacy and numeracy course, a programme run by the Howard League for Penal Reform, her life has changed completely.

"I have come a long way - I'd never read a book before," said Jessica, who is a transgender inmate at the men's maximum security prison who identifies as a female.

"I really enjoy reading, one of my favourite books is about people like me who left prison and are on the outside. It's about flatting and their life out there - things like that really
motivate me."

The Herald was invited to attend the graduation for Jessica and her fellow inmates on the basis that they were not identified.

Prime Minister Bill English chats with a Paremoremo inmate after awarding him with a certificate at a graduation ceremony at Auckland Prison today. Photo/ Jason Oxenham
Prime Minister Bill English chats with a Paremoremo inmate after awarding him with a certificate at a graduation ceremony at Auckland Prison today. Photo/ Jason Oxenham

This means the Herald cannot disclose who the inmates are or what they are serving time for.

But the Department of Corrections allowed Jessica to speak and use her preferred name.

"I am really proud," she said.

"I never thought I'd be here, no way ... it's amazing.

She said at the start of the course it was "embarrassing" as she had very little knowledge of words and numbers.

Now, she reads anything and everything she can get her hands on - and is encouraging the other inmates in her wing to take the course.

"I was really embarrassed at the start, I didn't feel confident, but now I do and it's amazing," she said.

Through the course inmates are paired with tutors who are volunteers trained through the Howard League.

They learn basic literacy and numeracy and pass the course when they can read an entire children's book - their voice recorded onto a CD that can be sent out to their families to show their progress.

The Howard League is running the course at all but one of New Zealand's 18 prisons and has put 500 inmates through their reading and writing paces - 100 in the last year.

Graduation ceremonies have been held at 11 prisons in the past and today's was the first at the Paremoremo site - New Zealand's toughest Corrections facility which houses some of the most dangerous and infamous inmates.

An prisoner holds a gift English Dictionary after receiving a certificate from PM Bill English. Photo / Jason Oxenham
An prisoner holds a gift English Dictionary after receiving a certificate from PM Bill English. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Today Jessica was the first to receive her course certificate from Prime Minister Bill English, and was chuffed when he signed her new dictionary after the ceremony.

Each inmate who passed the course was gifted a dictionary donated by the Rotary Club.

"I've come a long way and I hope to go further," Jessica told a room of attendees, including Corrections Minister Louise Upston, Auckland Prison Director Andy Langley, Corrections Northern Regional Commissioner Jeanette Burns, Deputy chief executive Christine Stevenson and Howard League chief executive Mike Williams, president Tony Gibbs and patron Dame Cath Tizard.

Her tutor also spoke, saying volunteering had "been a real eye opener".

"It's been a challenge for us both - it's been a real journey and ... it's exciting for me to get feedback from (Jessica's) case officer who said she is more confident.

"It's really heartening."

Another inmate who completed the course said it was the first certificate he'd ever received.

"I have learned a lot in jail," he said proudly.

"Sometimes you make mistakes - but I can learn inside jail."

Another man said he was "so grateful" for the chance to learn to read and write and could not wait to show his wife his completion certificate and to tell her he'd met the Prime
Minister.

"She'll say 'wow'," he laughed.

Langley said the inmates' success deserved a celebration.

"It's not an easy course, it takes a lot of hard work and determination," he said.

"They work hard with their mentors and tutors and, as a result, they're here today."

English also congratulated the graduates, saying he respected their effort.

"Because you don't have to make the effort, and some of the people you know don't make the effort," he said.

"But you have ... Thanks to you guys for making the effort."

Gibbs said that nearly two thirds of inmates failed to reach NCEA level one and a lack of basic literacy and numeracy within the prison population was "shameful".

However the League's course was helping to change that, allowing inmates to go on and do other courses and complete tasks many people took for granted, including write CVs and pass driver licence testing.

He said the League had many willing volunteers - they just "needed the customers" and he hoped in future more inmates would take the chance to learn the vital skills.

"I now turn to the graduates assembled here today," Gibbs told the group.

"This is your day, be proud."

Two inmates also received certificates for beekeeping, including one posthumously.

The inmate was about half way through the course when he died of natural causes just after Christmas.

Both were awarded their Telford Certificate in Apiculture, a course that costs $300 per inmate and is funded by the Howard League.

Williams said the course, run at the prison by former lecturer and commercial beekeeper Brian Alexander, was a "very good thing" for the inmates do to.

"There is a shortage of apiarists, so these people will get good jobs on release," he said.

"They will have no difficulty whatsoever, and that means they almost certainly won't reoffend."

In addition to the Howard League programme, Corrections also provide a range of literacy and numeracy support to prisoners.

It was "committed" to providing prisoners with the literacy and numeracy support they need to progress into higher level education and employment.

For information about becoming a prison volunteer tutor, contact Mike Williams on mikew@ihug.co.nz