Prisoner literacy: ‘I wrote to my girlfriend. She wrote back and I could read it’
A peer-to-peer literacy programme in Portlaoise Prison is proving a huge success
At Portlaoise Prison, visitors go through a metal detector and their belongings go through a scanner. As we pass through the prison, lots of gates and doors clang shut behind us, a prison officer points out soldiers in a tower and the block where the political prisoners are held, before we go through another gate into a section of the prison that holds the other prisoners. Due to the high ceilings and bare walls, every word echoes slightly.
We eventually arrive at a visitation room in which prisoners typically meet their families. A prisoner, James, is brought into the room. “When they called me, I said, ‘Don’t tell me I’m in trouble again’,” he laughs.
James is an ambassador with the National Adult Literacy Agency (Nala)’s peer-to-peer literacy programme. Some 70 per cent of prisoners in Irish jails have some sort of issue with literacy. The peer-to-peer programme, which began in 2019, came from talking to students, says prison English and literacy teacher Shauna Gilligan. “They’d say they were helping someone else on the landing [with reading]. I asked my colleagues, ‘Does this happen a lot?’ and they said, ‘Oh yeah, people help each other’.”
The teachers decided to encourage this. With the support of the Laois & Offaly Education and Training Board and the Irish Prison Service, they met with staff from Nala, after which Nala ran workshops for prisoners and staff. The prisoners formed a group of literacy ambassadors modelled on the Samaritans’ Listener scheme (an initiative where prisoners provide support to others struggling with their mental health). They created an information leaflet that went in every laundry bag. Soon 15 ambassadors were working with fellow prisoners.
Why is the peer-to-peer element so useful? “We grew up in the same socioeconomic backgrounds,” says James. “We grew up with the same perspectives on how things are.”
A prisoner can understand what another prisoner might be going through, he says. “If he decided he didn’t want to do it one day, you had to be mindful. They have other things going on outside with families or girlfriends. They could have had a bad phone call.”
Nala also worked with the Waterford Institute of Technology to create a literacy tutor training course that six of the ambassadors undertook. In autumn 2021 they graduated, and Minister for Further Education Simon Harris congratulated them by video. “They were quite moved by it,” says Gilligan.
I noticed a lot of the lads couldn’t fill in forms or write letters. They’d be asking me to read the newspaper for them
James, like many of his fellow prisoners, left school early. “My mother and father couldn’t read or write so I had to help them do the shopping and fill in forms… When I went home with schoolbooks my mam would jump under the bed… My father hated the system because he had suffered abuse in an institution.”
James went on to further education eventually, but he ended up in prison nonetheless. “I noticed a lot of the lads couldn’t fill in forms or write letters,” he says. “They’d be asking me to read the newspaper for them.”
There’s a macho attitude in prison, he says. “If you go to school and make a mistake, that might translate back to the landings where you might be jeered… So people are hesitant or apprehensive. So we were trying to create an environment where that wouldn’t happen.”
James is currently doing a degree in social science, which gives him additional insight. “You have to confront some decisions you made and you’re being exposed to perspectives that are completely challenging to the ideas that you had.” But it’s also illuminating. “It’s helped me to explain to other people what we went through.”
I don’t know what crime James committed (and any prisoner names used in this piece are pseudonyms), but he has been in prison more than once. “So something is wrong,” he says. “Somewhere along the line I made decisions that, had I been a bit more informed or mature, I wouldn’t have made. For me, all that I’m doing here now is some attempt to rebalance some of the bad things I’ve done in life.”
In the prison’s school, supervising teacher David Higgins shows me a computer room, a music room with instruments, a craft room with woodwork and stone-carving, and an art room where another participant in the peer-to-peer scheme is framing an oil painting. “I never did art before,” says the prisoner. “Now I’ve 30 paintings done.”
It’s self-policed. If lads come in and haven’t switched on to the environment, the other lads will let them know that their behaviour is not acceptable
It’s a painting of a wooden cabin next to a little rowboat in a creek. Where is that place? He’s not sure. “I get them out of websites and out of books.”
“It looks like a place you’d like to be,” says a prison officer.
The prisoner laughs. “But I’d need an engine on that boat.”
Higgins is proud that 60 per cent of the prisoners here are involved with education. Ten are doing open university degrees. One will soon begin a doctorate. The atmosphere in the school is a positive one, he says. “It’s self-policed. If lads come in and haven’t switched on to the environment, the other lads will let them know that their behaviour is not acceptable.”
Gilligan has been a literacy and English teacher here since 2018. She previously taught creative writing in the prison. She loves the human connection involved in teaching people. She talks about the non-judgmental, liberatory educational philosophy of Paulo Freire.
On the landings, she says, prisoners “have to be a particular type of person and in education all that’s gone. They can express themselves and that can be very freeing… I’ve heard students say that coming to education feels like you’re not in prison. You’re sitting in a room and chatting about something other than where you are.”
She says the peer-to-peer programme has had a positive effect on the prison. The ambassadors are seen carrying books and folders around. “They seemed to get a huge sense of satisfaction from helping others. That was really moving.”
When you see them putting in an effort it gives you a lift. It gives you boost. It should be rolled out across all the prisons
I meet another literacy ambassador, Mark. “People weren’t afraid to ask us for help,” he says. “Word of mouth is important in jail. People would ask and I would encourage them. Then we go to the classroom, just us, and we work one on one… Everything in the room stays in the room. They relax. They stop panicking that you’ll say on the landing, ‘he’s stupid’. The first prisoner I had wanted to write a letter to his girlfriend and I helped him do that.”
What has he learned from doing this? “I’ve learned to slow down my talking. I never thought I could do this. When you see them putting in an effort it gives you a lift. It gives you boost. It should be rolled out across all the prisons.”
For another prisoner, Paul, reading was a huge source of anxiety. “In our school there was a lot of us in the class and I was always a little bit behind… The teacher would be asking each individual to read a paragraph, and I’d be praying that the bell would go and I’d be able to go outside and I wouldn’t have to read.”
He stopped going to school before his Junior Cert. “My mother had a nervous breakdown and my da was always working… So I was kind of moved around in the family a bit and because my da wasn’t really there and my ma was in hospital, I didn’t go.”
How did his lack of education affect him? “I wouldn’t have been able to apply for jobs. I always fancied being an electrician, but I knew you’d have to do a written exam and that put me off. I was too afraid, too embarrassed about not being able to do it… Now if I get out and see a job I want to go for, I’ll apply.”
What made him want to learn now? “I wanted to be able to pick up the newspaper and see what was on television… I wasn’t confident enough to take a book out of a library and I wanted to do that. When I talked to Shauna she was very kind to me. I wanted to prove to my family that I could do something, I could get certificates.”
He also wrote his first letter to his partner.
“It was telling her about how I felt and describing how I was going to get better at the writing and I would keep writing to her. And she wrote back and I could read and understand it. She got to say more things in the letter than she could in the visit . . . And I was able to write back answering questions she asked in the letter.
“I was surprised how she reacted. She reacted great to it. On the phone that night she was telling me, ‘I can’t believe you wrote that.’ It was a good letter, too – it was two pages . . . She said, ‘You don’t say half of these things on the visit.’
“And I wrote a letter to my cousin, too, who wasn’t very well for a while. He wrote that he wanted to come and visit me and he did come and visit me.”
The tutors and students have also produced booklets in association with Nala. One booklet, Coming to Prison, explains prison routines to newcomers. Since then they have produced several publications. Mark wrote a booklet about stone-carving (he tells me about a Celtic cross he made for his brother).
Paul, meanwhile, wrote a story for another book about watching the Pixar film Cars with his children. They made a CD of him reading it and sent it to his family. “My partner had it on in the car. The little one was saying, ‘Put daddy back on’.”
His youngest child will still be quite young when Paul gets out. “I’ll be able to read him a story if he wants.”