Though Howard League volunteers have taught hundreds of prisoners the basics of reading and writing and we have mounted dozens of graduations over five years, the whole experience never ceases to be rewarding and uplifting in sometimes novel ways.

Last Tuesday was our first graduation at Christchurch Men's prison.

Though we've had volunteers teaching various courses there for several years, a combination of factors meant that this was our first graduation and we were pleased to have the Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, as our guest speaker.

Christchurch Men's prison is one our biggest jails and it includes a large piggery which raises and fattens up to 16,000 pigs a year.


This is one of the more modern jails and will be one of the sites for the prefabricated accommodation units currently under construction.

This graduation was novel in that it was the first we'd mounted in a Youth Unit.

This facility has a capacity of 44 young prisoners and it is for sentenced offenders under 18.

We were told by the unit manager that, depending on their sentences, the young men incarcerated in the unit may stay after their 18th birthday if it is considered to be detrimental for them to be moved into the adult units.

We graduated nine prisoners. Two had completed the normal literacy course and seven had succeeded in a course aimed at fathers.

The seven "Story Book Fathers" graduates had learned to read a kid's book and had successfully done so on to a CD which, with the book, was sent to their child's caregiver.

After each certificate was presented by the Deputy PM, a Corrections official read out the name of each of the graduates' children, where that child was, and whether the particular prisoner had access.

One had two children and in one case a mother was present.


It occurred to me that I had been afforded a glimpse of a world usually unknown to people such as myself.

Here at the age of 16 or 17 were young fathers who at least had the courage to attempt a very basic relationship with their kids.

The babies who were to receive recordings of their fathers reading them a story obviously had not got off to a great start in life with dad in jail, but taking this course and succeeding at it at least represented some degree of responsibility in these young men.

Anne, the Howard League's co-ordinator in Christchurch, who has done a superb job getting our programmes under way in the Canterbury jails (having faced many obstructions), compared the gift that these infants were about to receive with a letter her own father had written to her during World War II, which she treasured to this day.

In her brief speech, she caught the mood of the occasion with a quote from the English Bishop Sir James Jones who was appointed as a "Bishop for Prisons" in the UK and who said: "We need to turn prisons from being warehouses to store the incorrigible into being greenhouses that restore the redeemable."

The young men who graduated are redeemable and are being restored thanks to Anne and our Howard League tutors Beverly, Jacqui and Ash.

The prisoners were visibly delighted with their success and they performed a powerful haka which Ben Clark, the Southern Region Commissioner for Corrections rightly described as "spine-tingling".

Deputy Prime Minister Peters gave a well-judged speech, making the point that:
"Research shows that this type of programme works. It helps in maintaining family bonds while you are physically separated from family and whanau. The stronger the bond the less likely you will want to jeopardise your future freedom after your release. Imagine, too, the happiness you give your children when they hear their dad's voice as you read them children stories."

Penal matters are likely to come to the fore in the weeks ahead as It seems likely that Parliament will be soon be asked to repeal of the "Three Strikes" Law.

This is a bit of silly "tough on crime" right-wingery which was the brainchild of David Garrett, a short-lived and discredited Act Party MP who resigned his seat having been sprung for stealing the identity of a dead infant to obtain a passport.

This law prescribes a maximum sentence for a third offence and was intended as a deterrent for repeat offenders.

There is no evidence that such a law has any effect on offending and it can have bizarre results, such as a mentally ill man having to be sentenced to seven years for kissing a stranger in the street.

This meant a potential cost to long-suffering tax payers like you and me in excess of $700,000.

This stupidity won't be missed.

• 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.