The Howard League is making significant steps in the right direction with its prison literacy progamme

An invitation to address a Rotary conference in Napier last weekend gave me a welcome reason to visit the region I still regard as home, even though I was born in Wellington and have spent most of my life in Auckland.

I always welcome the opportunity to speak about the aims and activities of the Howard League to organisations like Rotary and the University of the Third Age as it's important for people to understand what an outlier New Zealand is in terms of the quantum of its citizens in jail at any one time.

Such opportunities also force me to consider the values and direction of the organisation and to evaluate exactly what our many members and volunteers are achieving for their efforts and investments over many years.

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It's worth repeating that our incarceration rate of 214 prisoners per 100,000 of population is shamefully excessive and must be addressed.

Mike Williams
Mike Williams

We should be thoroughly embarrassed by countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany with comparable rates of 59, 63 and 75 respectively. Even the countries most like us do better than us with Australia at a rate of 172 and the United Kingdom at 140.

This just demonstrates how atypical we have become.

Even benighted Mexico manages 164. Are we really happy to be in a league with Russia and Rwanda?

This is first and foremost an ongoing waste of human potential but even the hardest hearted amongst us must at least resent the burgeoning cost – now more than $110,000 per prisoner per year.

Nearly a decade ago the Howard League made the decision to put its energies into attacking two of the main causes of high prisoner numbers, first prisoner literacy and second drivers' licences.

One of our activists came across this quote from British author Neil Gaiman who found himself at a conference of private prison companies in the USA 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".

For the past eight years, following a trial in Hawke's Bay, the Howard League has recruited and deployed literacy tutors into virtually every jail, into drug rehabilitation centres and the alcohol and drug courts in Auckland.

We have now taught the basics of reading and writing to well into the thousands of prisoners and offenders.

Our activities in this area have coincided with an enhanced focus on prisoner literacy by successive governments.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis should take note that these efforts are at last paying dividends.

New statistics show that the rate of functional illiteracy amongst prisoners has begun to decline in recent years.

(Functional illiteracy means the inability to read and comprehend common documents like employment or tenancy agreements).

In 2015 65 per cent of prisoners were judged to fit into this category but by 2018 this number had dropped by 8 per cent to 57 per cent.

The number of profoundly illiterate prisoners at levels one and two on the scale now in wide use had also dropped from 22 per cent to 18 per cent.

It is on this second group of prisoners that the Howard League's one-on-one literacy programme focuses.

These numbers mean around a thousand prisoners on release will have a better chance of finding a job and therefore a reduced rate of reoffending.

They add up to a significant step in the right direction.

Our second focus has been getting drivers' licences for offenders who are on probation and on a path that too often leads to a jail sentence.

A drivers' licence is something of a silver bullet for any young jobless person looking for work.

A researcher working for former corrections minister Judith Collins' showed that fully 84 per cent of entry level jobs require at least a restricted license.

It's a statistical fact that Māori offenders who make up more than half of the prison population very often have a driving offence as at least a part of their first jail sentence.

Last year the Howard League was awarded a Provincial Growth Fund grant to expand an unlicensed driver's programme that had also begun in Hawke's Bay and we now have eight months of information to see exactly who is benefiting from this initiative.

The Howard League tutors in the programme get the neediest offenders referred by Probation Officers.

When we had the first thousand licence successes in this programme analysed by the Corrections Department statisticians we found that 700, or 70 per cent, identified as Māori.

Bullseye!

Because of the funding source, this programme only runs in provincial centres. The Howard League's next challenge is to find funding for similar programmes in the big cities.

*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.