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Turning pages and changing lives: furnishing prisoners with employability skills

Article by Katie Silvester

Half of the UK’s prison population is functionally illiterate – that is, with the reading level of an 11-year-old or below.

It was this realisation that saw the launch of the Shannon Trust’s Turning Pages programme 20 years ago, pairing struggling readers with mentors – usually fellow inmates – with the aim of improving their reading skills as part of their rehabilitation in prison.

The scheme has just been awarded the inaugural Action for Equity Award by the London School of Economics – a new prize that recognises the work done by civic organisations to combat inequality around the world.

One prisoner, interviewed for a Shannon Trust report evaluating the scheme, said: ‘When I first came in to jail I was depressed and I thought what’s the point in learning? This is the time to do it, to progress with me reading and writing.’

He added, ‘If you can’t read the signs in the workshop or can’t fill in the forms or this that and the other you can’t get nowhere – even in jail.’

Not only do non-readers benefit, the mentors also enjoy the sense of purpose and the feel good factor of helping others. ‘I actually suffer from dyslexia myself and if I can learn to teach, he can learn to read and that’s what I’ve built on,’ a mentor told researchers.

Volunteers from the Shannon Trust go into prisons to train mentors, furthering the charity’s vision of ‘every prisoner a reader’. The scheme has its own set of workbooks and reading books called Turning Pages, designed to support reading in an adult environment using synthetic phonics. The scheme is now available in 124 prisons – male and female – across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For more information, visit the Shannon Trust’s website at www.shannontrust.org.uk