Literacy leap for prisoners – non-partisan leap for MPs

Mike Williams is Labour ex-president and a staunch party supporter. He is now CEO of the Howard League and is a staunch promoter of penal reform.

In an unlikely alliance he has joined with ACT MP David Seymour in suggesting a policy that should improve dire prisoner literacy rates and potentially improve the prospects of ex prisoners and reduce recidivism.

And Seymour’s suggestions have also got some support from Prime Minister Bill English and from Labour’s Justice spokesperson Kelvin Davis. Whether Seymour retains his Epsom electorate or not this year, and whoever forms the next government, it would be good to see his policy make some progress.

Williams writes: Literacy leap for prisoners. Some background:

 Howard League president Tony Gibbs and I have been running a long-term programme of raising awareness about the inability of a majority of prisoners to read and write sufficiently well enough to function as a normal human in modern society.

To this end we have been inviting politicians and other influential public figures to attend our Howard League prisoner literacy graduation ceremonies.

Many of our political leaders have never visited a jail or talked to a prisoner and most have no concept of the malign results of illiteracy.

Last year we had a graduation at Rimutaka jail and were very fortunate to attract Bill English, then deputy prime minister, as guest speaker.

Tony Gibbs has known former Act party president John Thompson for many years and through this connection, we also invited David Seymour, the sole Act party MP.

The Seymour experience:

At the Rimutaka graduation he chatted with a number of prisoner graduates and talked to the tutors who were there to see their students get their certificates.

Rimutaka jail is one of New Zealand’s largest prisons and can accommodate more that 1000 inmates, and David Seymour asked me why, if two-thirds of the men there were statistically likely to be illiterate, were we graduating only eight prisoners.

One answer to this question is that many prisoners have such negative self-images that they do not seek to improve themselves when there appears to be no reward for doing so.

The Seymour response:

David Seymour suggested that if prisoners were offered a discount on their sentences this might be the circuit breaker that not only inspired prisoners to get the basic skills needed to get work and “go straight” on release, it might eventually reduce prisoner numbers and start addressing the serious overcrowding problem that bedevils our jails.

These thoughts plus a lot of research turned into a new Act party policy which Seymour announced at the conference I attended.

He said: “It’s called Rewarding Self-Improvement in Prisons. This proposal would provide incentives, in the form of reduced sentences, for prisoners to complete basic programmes in literacy, numeracy, and driver licensing.

“Those prisoners who are already functionally literate, numerate, and licensed to drive, can still benefit from Act’s policy. They would earn credits for training as a mentor, and then teaching other prisoners.”

Seymour didn’t just learn from his prison visit, he researched solutions and looked for success with similar approaches overseas:

In the US, states that have Earned Credit Programs in prisons report a lower recidivism rate than states that do not have one. New York saw a 20 per cent lower recidivism rate among prisoners who earned early-release.”

Such a strategy is also likely to be financially attractive as David Seymour went on to point out.

“They save money. A model student serving a two-year sentence could, under Act’s proposal, shave 12 weeks off their sentence and save the taxpayer $14,000. And if their learning prevents future imprisonment, the saving could enter the $100,000s, which could be reinvested in educational programmes.

“And that’s just for one prisoner.

“The New York Corrections Department saved $369 million in a decade thanks to their earned credit policy. A proportionate saving for New Zealand’s population would be $113m for Corrections.

“The savings would be far higher if you include individuals, families, and businesses that would no longer have to face the costs of crime.”

Non-partisan support:

The Prime Minister said that it was worth considering and Kelvin Davis MP endorsed the idea on behalf of the Labour Party. Even the “tough on crime” Sensible Sentencing Trust supported the policy.

This amounts to a great leap ahead and a triumph for common sense.

It’s also a good example of how politics can work positively in a non-partisan way.

But why has it taken so long? Peter Dunne issued this media statement in 2006: Literacy another failure for Corrections

United Future leader Peter Dunne has called on the Government to address the issue of illiteracy amongst New Zealand’s prison population.

“One of the most effective ways of preventing inmates from re-offending is to teach them the necessary skills to get a job and make a contribution to society when they get out. That is a hard thing to do if they lack the most basic literacy requirements.”

Literacy education is provided within prisons; however only if a prisoner is motivated enough to address their own illiteracy issue can that prisoner be referred for literacy tuition.

The larger parties are unlikely to make addressing prisoner illiteracy a priority, so it may take an election win for Seymour and some vigorous lobbying to get some progress on his proposal.

ACT could make it a bottom line for supporting a National led government again – and National should be receptive to accommodating the policy.

If Labour lead the next Government it may take some pushing from Seymour and some help from Davis.

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  1. duperez

     /  March 20, 2017

    After the election Seymour can team up with Nikki Kaye and go full throttle on charter schools.
    When all schooling is either charter or private there’ll be no criminals needing literacy programmes in jail. Actually there’ll be no need for jails as there’ll be no criminals.

  2. Gezza

     /  March 20, 2017

    Some good thinking going on here. Although these people having worthwhile jobs to go to on release would be a big help no doubt.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  March 20, 2017

      The only problem with that is that people may not be too keen to employ them. Nobody would want a thief to work with money. Rapists may reform, and I believe that some do, but I would have to say that when I was working during the university holidays in a basement with a fellow student, I would have been uneasy (to say the least) if, instead of being a nice bloke from Hong Kong, he had been a gang member who’d done a number of rapes. In that case, of course, they would have given my job to a man.

      But on the whole, I think that it’s an excellent idea. I wish they wouldn’t call it graduating, though !

      • It’s common for young people to pinch things but most quickly grow out of petty criminal behaviour and there’s no reason they can’t be trusted when adults.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  March 20, 2017

          I’m not talking about that, of course. But I wonder how many people would like to work with or employ a person who’s just been inside for burglary, fraud or other dishonesty.

          Petty crime and rape, assault and murder are worlds apart.

  3. Kitty Catkin

     /  March 20, 2017

    Unless they really have graduated from somewhere.

  4. Corky

     /  March 20, 2017

    ”But why has it taken so long? Peter Dunne issued this media statement in 2006.”

    That’s easy. That Pakeha bs of books, reading and writing isn’t part of the ‘bro” experience. The ‘bros’ go on culturally correct courses of learning their tikanga, taiaha and tikanga Maori. They don’t need that writing shat for learning Maori things. Sadly, the more staunch the prisoner, the less likely they are to engage.

  5. duperez

     /  March 20, 2017

    The literacy thing is fine. Rewarding self-improvement is fine. Both are worthy initiatives.

    The critical thing though is that they are just ambulances at the the bottom of the cliff. Flasher, newer ambulances, but just ambulances.

    I don’t know what the answer is to see no need for them but people likely to be involved in the prison literacy programmes in the future are the types of kids from Kaikohe we saw featured in the news today. The answer of course isn’t treating them worse than dogs from before they’re born and expecting them to be calm, rational, well-adjusted adolescents and adults.

    • PDB

       /  March 20, 2017

      Society in general has moved away from holding parents responsible for their own kids – is it any wonder incidents like that in Kaikohe are happening?

      • Blazer

         /  March 20, 2017

        when were parents held responsible for…their childrens ..behaviour?

        • PDB

           /  March 20, 2017

          when 10 & 11 year olds are regularly walking the streets in the early hours of the morning causing problems………

          • Blazer

             /  March 20, 2017

            read the question again… clearly didn’t the first ..time.

          • Gezza

             /  March 20, 2017

            Well, mine were. Socially anyway. Misbehaviours reported to them were acted on at home.

            • Blazer

               /  March 20, 2017

              so how were parents held..responsible?

            • Gezza

               /  March 20, 2017

              Common social custom in the neighbourhood we lived in. You misbehaved, some adult saw it, they either rang the police or they rang your mum. You got home. You had a skilled interrogation & chance to get your side of the story straight before dad got home. Depending on the nature of the misdemeanour you mght be sent round after that to apologise and or to offer some sort of restitutionary efforts, like helping replant their garden you wrecked. Very embarrassing.

            • Blazer

               /  March 20, 2017

              so when Dad got home…you got a hiding?Was this in the 60’s-70’s or later…do you believe in the anti smacking bill?

            • Gezza

               /  March 20, 2017

              Shit no. Dad never hit us. Or mum. Mum did the smacks, when we were little. Mind you she was suffering from severe anxiety & depression & that stopped once it was identified & she was treated for that. No, it was just how neighbourhoods operated back then. Your parents were held socially responsible for your behaviour & for getting you to behave well & respect others. No, I don’t support the anti-smacking bill if it outlaws a smack on the bottom when nothing else works. But I also don’t support beating your kids.

  6. Blazer

     /  March 20, 2017

    the strap and the cane were common years ago.I came across a particularly keen exponent of the cane ,a maths teacher in later life…when I put it to him his retort…’in those days you were allowed to cane students’…my reply…yes ,but you had discretion whether to or not…he quickly departed ..the building.