A prisoner serving a life sentence at Rimutaka Prison is halfway through the fifth book in the Harry Potter series.

It is quite the achievement, the 45-year-old says. Three months ago, he couldn't read or write a word.

"It's a real buzz," he told the Herald this afternoon. "I'm a bit dyslexic. I didn't know what the words sounded like. I just never knew. I didn't have a chance to learn."

The man, who the Herald agreed not to name, was one of eight prisoners to graduate from the prison's literacy programme today.


"It might give me an opportunity to look for a job in a place I could never look before," he said.

He is also able to write to his 18-year-old daughter, something he needed other prisoners to do until now.

Around 20 people are currently doing the literacy programme at Rimutaka, which is run by the penal reform group the Howard League in partnership with the Corrections Department.

Today's ceremony took place in the visitors' hall at the maximum security prison and had a number of high-profile guests, including Corrections chief Ray Smith, Finance Minister Bill English, Act Party leader David Seymour, and former Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard � a patron of the Howard League. Goldman Sachs New Zealand boss Andrew Barclay was also at the ceremony -- his company pays for the prisoners' textbooks.

"This is your day," Smith told the graduates. "We just want you to know that we are backing you to win."

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, English said the literacy programme fitted within the Government's "social investment" approach.

The National-led Government is increasingly looking to strictly invest in rigorously-tested social policies which have been proven to make the biggest difference for vulnerable people.

"Around 45 per cent of prisoners reoffend," English said. "When they come back, they cost $100,000 each to be in this prison. So it's worth us spending a few thousand on them so that they don't come back.

"We have a pool of money which is spent on rehabilitation. It's a matter of what's going to work the best. And being able to read and write looks pretty basic."

English said the Government was gradually learning about the combination of interventions which reduced reoffending. They included learning trade skills and literacy within prison, and being given stable accommodation after leaving jail.

"One reason they end back with people who get them into trouble is because that's who will give them a bed. So we probably need to work harder on that."

Howard League president Tony Gibbs said his organisation now had 500 volunteer tutors around the country.

If they ran two programmes a year each, the illiteracy rate in prisons would be cut by half within three years, he said.

"We have already raised funds and purchased sufficient textbooks. We just need plenty of graduates to come forth."

Around half of the inmates are illiterate when they begin the programme.

"They don't have their ABCs," one of the tutors, Lesley Sole, said. "But they are wonderful students. They want to learn."

After the 12-week programme, most of the inmates can read to the level of a 10 or 11 year-old.

That level is significant, Howard League chief executive Mike Williams said, because the New Zealand road code is designed to be understood by a 10 year-old. Gaining a driver's licence is another key factor in reducing reoffending, because it gives ex-inmates more job opportunities and allows them to open a bank account.

"If we can just get them their bloody licence they won't come back to jail," Williams said.