Unlocking the Power of Reading

This month’s blog is by James Argent, regional manager at Shannon Trust. James discusses the impact that their ‘Turning Pages’ programmes has on prisoners

13 Aug 2021

By James Argent, Regional Manager with the Shannon Trust

How would you feel if you struggled with reading? Embarrassed? Worried about people finding out? Stressed because you weren’t able to carry out everyday tasks like filling out a form online or writing a birthday card? Sadly this is the reality of daily life for a large number of adults.

Across the UK around 15% of adults read below ‘Level 1’, which is broadly what is expected of a child leaving primary school at the age of 11. However in prison this figure increases to over 50%. Yes that’s right; more than half of people in prison have an issue with reading. This makes daily life inside harder and also has a huge impact on their future lives as they leave prison and go ‘through the gate’

Shannon Trust is a charity working hard to address this issue. We are a small charity, but one with a large reach! Our reading programme operates in over 120 prisons across England, Wales & Northern Ireland, using specially trained peer mentors.

We take our name from Tom Shannon, a former prisoner who took part in a letter writing scheme with a farmer called Chris Morgan. Chris was shocked to learn from Tom’s letters about how many people in prison were unable to read and resolved to do something about. Hence Shannon Trust was born and started work at HMP Wandsworth in London in 2001.

The idea is simple – to harness the enthusiasm and skills of prisoners who can read, to support those who cannot. Right from day one, our guiding principle has been ‘by prisoners, for prisoners’; put simply, we couldn’t do what we do without our mentors and in a typical year we train over 1000 men and women to act as mentors in prisons all over the country. They support thousands of learners, of all ages and all backgrounds, including a significant number of Gypsy, Roma & Traveller men and women.

Our mentors and learners work together on a 1-to-1 basis, meeting for short regular sessions wherever and whenever they can. Our reading programme offers an alternative to traditional classroom-based learning within the prison – our informal approach offers more privacy for learners, some of whom may be embarrassed about their struggles with reading or fearful of other people finding out, and gives them a flexible way to improve their skills. Participation in our programme is always entirely voluntary and learners stay involved for as long as they want to. Because we operate in virtually every prison across the country, learners who move around can continue wherever they end up.

Learners and mentors use our ‘Turning Pages’ reading scheme that has been specifically designed for adult learners in custody. This consists of 6 manuals and a series of accompanying reading books. 2 of our reading books, The Long Road and The Kushti Screeve were written in partnership with the Irish Chaplaincy specifically for Gypsy, Roma & Traveller learners, featuring themes we find are popular with this group.

Our most recent annual survey showed just over 10% of our learners were from Gypsy, Roma & Traveller backgrounds, so we know our programme is popular amongst this section of the prison population. The feedback we get from these learners is that they enjoy the informal, peer-to-peer nature of what we do, where they can work with another prisoner and go at their own pace, without any deadlines or tests. We hear they are motivated particularly by the desire to improve links with their families, by being able to read to their children and write their own letters.

“There are so many new things I want to enjoy when I am home, like being able to read a menu in a restaurant to my wife, reading the paper and most of all reading a bedtime story to my grandchildren. I would recommend Shannon Trust to anyone, it only takes a little patience and 20 minutes a day.”

– Mick, Traveller learner

To find out more about our work you can visit www.shannontrust.org.uk or you can find us on all major social media platform.