Community Education Whanganui and Whanganui Prison joined hands and took "a massive leap of faith" last year.

They started offering prisoners new learning opportunities.

Mel Shaw had never taught prisoners before and said there had been a lot to learn but the prisoners have never scared or worried her. She found most of them had never got beyond Year 9 at school.

She likes giving the men a better learning experience.

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"The most satisfying thing is seeing them acknowledging their own skills and being surprised by how much they already know."

At graduations the prison's learning and rehabilitation adviser, Deb Griffiths, notices the men's growth in pride and confidence.

She said New Zealand prisons have staff contracted to offer the kind of education provided in schools - literacy, numeracy and NCEA Levels 1 and 2. Whanganui Prison has 10 computers with no internet access that are available for online learning, and people can do tertiary extramural courses, writing longhand.

The prison saw a need for more opportunities for self expression.

Teaching the prisoners fitted with the National-led Government's drive to boost the lowest levels of academic achievement, Community Education Whanganui (CEW) manager Sian MacGibbon said. So CEW got involved.

Last year Mrs Griffiths designed a course to get prisoners work ready. Ms Shaw taught it to groups of six to eight prisoners, and there have been four intakes so far.

Lots of prisoners enrol in education but not many complete the qualifications. So tutor Margaret Beauchamp took on a group of self-directed learners in a programme aimed a supporting them toward completion.

The self-expression opportunity came with tutor Kate Smith's creative writing course. One of her students has published a book and entered it in one of the the Nelson Page & Blackmore Booksellers competitions. And Ms Smith is also tutoring and supporting a group doing tertiary study.

For many prisoners, being inside is an ideal time to study. About 70 of Whanganui's nearly 600 prisoners are embarked on tertiary study.

Last year about 40 prisoners did CEW courses. This year Mrs MacGibbon wants to carry on, and expand the subjects to music, art and raranga (weaving).

Last year the tutors were funded by Adult and Community Education Aotearoa (ACE). But this year Mrs MacGibbon would have to start a private training establishment in order to get the same funding.

She said doing so would make the courses more formal and less special. She's determined to carry them on as CEW, and would welcome donations or sponsorship.

"Somehow or other we will make this work. One of the reasons we are doing it is that we know that one day these guys are going to come out and be our next door neighbours. We want to give them a new start."