LAST year a white-collar offender from a high-profile case contacted me - he had been convicted but not yet sentenced.
He anticipated a sentence of between two and four years. I met him in a Ponsonby coffee bar.
He knew about the Howard League's prisoner literacy programme and wanted to make his stay in jail useful by helping with our peer-to-peer literacy initiative.
I was happy for this offender get involved at whatever jail he ended up at.
Some months later he has started teaching illiterate prisoners in his jail and at Christmas he sent a letter which I'll quote from.
"The saddest thing though is the inevitable arrival at these gates by so many [and their return]. Illiteracy and the ensuing poverty reveal a side to our country that we can't imagine. I've got this idea that our goal needs to be to trim the Corrections budget and to reallocate it to the Education budget - the fence at the top of the cliff.
I'm hoping the literacy programme I'm mentoring here can make some small steps in this direction ..."
This eloquently underlines the value of what the Howard League is trying to achieve and leads me to write again about the curse of illiteracy in what is an otherwise advanced society.
Research shows at least half of New Zealand's roughly nine thousand prisoners are functionally illiterate. Other studies suggest illiteracy among prison inmates is much higher than the commonly accepted fifty per cent.
If you are reading this column, you are plainly literate and it's difficult for us and the vast majority of kiwis to imagine what illiteracy is like.
The inability to read and write means that processes accepted as normal like getting a job or a driver licence are difficult, if not impossible.
The relationship between illiteracy and imprisonment is clear and well established.
The British author Neil Gaiman found himself at a conference of private prison providers in the United States and wrote:
"The prison industry needs to plan its future growth - how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? They found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read".
It bears repeating that New Zealand's rate of incarceration is one of the highest in the world at nearly 200 per 100,000 of population. This compares very unfavourably with countries like Germany at 78, France at 100 and even Australia at 151.
As taxpayers we spent nearly $1.2 billion on the Corrections Budget last year and the Government recently had to spend an extra $27 million to cope with rising prisoner numbers.
The Government and Corrections Department have a strategy of reducing reoffending as its major thrust for bringing down our incarceration rate.
This approach is bearing fruit and should be applauded, however an "all-of-government approach" to this problem would also target illiterate school leavers who overwhelmingly supply the pipeline of prisoners coming into our jail system.
It seems incredible that with school attendance in New Zealand compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16, that we can still produce teenagers who can't read or write. We badly need to find out how this situation arises and that should not be difficult. A research project that interviews illiterate prisoners would be a quick and cost-effective way of starting to get to the bottom of an expensive problem.
One of the Howard League prisoner literacy programme's very early graduates left school at the age of 10. When I asked him if there had been any follow-up after his departure, he said that his mother told the school that he's gone to stay with a relative near East Cape.
No one in the truancy space checked this story and our graduate was on the road to unemployment, unlicensed driving, crime and imprisonment.
He was highly intelligent, quickly mastered reading and writing through the Howard League programme and got a job on release. He's now been crime free for nearly three years.
Political parties working on their policies for the 2017 General Election could be well advised to come up with strategies to make certain that no one is able to leave school without the ability to read and write.
Some schools adopt the same approach as the Howard League and offer one-on-one tuition to hard-core non-readers. This is a highly effective approach and can be done, as the Howard League has proven, with volunteer tutors.
If all schools tested for illiteracy and took action, New Zealand's incarceration rate would drop and the eventual savings could be immense.
-Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is chief executive of the NZ Howard League and a former president of the Labour Party. He is a political commentator and can be heard on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon programme, at 11am Mondays, and Sean Plunket's RadioLive show, 11am, Fridays. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.