What do 25% of the adult population in the UK have in common with 50% of serving prisoners? They both have a reading age of or below that of an 11-year-old!

Let’s start off with some statistics, who doesn’t love a statistic! When I began my prison studies approximately 18 months ago the focus was on enabling those who were unable to read to have the opportunity to access the written word! Prisons were provided with several scanning pens; the ReaderPen and the ExamReader Pen; in the hope that having access to assistive technology in a restrictive environment would open learning doorways. However, what I did not understand at that time was the sheer enormity of this task, particularly in relation to the emotional, physical, and mental blocks which illiterate prisoners face daily. I began by considering where the difficulties had originally started…


42% of prisoners were permanently excluded from school


In the opening title I allude to 50% of prisoners being at below Level 1 Functional skills in their learning; however, 20% of these are completely illiterate.  On 5 October 2018 there were 85,000 people in prison.  (Gov.UK, 2018) and therefore this equates to 42,500 non-readers.


Every day 35 children are told to leave school permanently = 6,685 children each academic year (Institute of Public Policy Research, 2017 cited in Gill et al., 2017)


Over the past 3 years there has been a 40% increase in permanent exclusions.  The Institute of Public Policy Research commissioned ‘The Making a Difference Report’ (Gill et al., 2017) which explained that this figure is only the tip of the ice-berg.  In fact, at some point during the school year 48,000 pupils are not being educated in mainstream schools or in special alternative education projects.  This figure is far higher than the 6,685 pupils we are told have been permanently excluded during the year.

During my study in Prison C I discovered that 20% of the participants had undertaken education in alternative settings, e.g. a pupil referral unit (PRU).  Furthermore, this 20% of participants had also left this form of education with no formal qualifications.  Gill et al., (2017) nationally publicised figures of educational outcomes for excluded children indicate only 1%, achieve 5 GCSEs, if we examine this further the figures suggest only 67 students who have been permanently excluded achieved the government sought number of qualifications at 15/16 years of age.

Part of my Prison C questionnaire asked the prisoner when they had completed or ended their educational journey and what qualifications they had achieved.  80% had left education, whether that be mainstream or a PRU, with zero qualifications, and one participant had left school permanently at the age of 10.

Of course, education is only one element of life which has influenced a prisoner in early life.  The other influences we need to consider include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), (Public Health Wales and Blackburn and Darwen Local Authority, undated) which impact on the child.  ACEs include; poverty, parental drug and alcohol misuse, domestic violence, community deprivation and mental health difficulties.  Long-term studies of ACEs, such as that undertaken by Reavis et al., (2013), put forward potential causal links between ACEs and criminality.  Their research showed offenders had experienced nearly four times more ACEs compared with non-offenders. 

In this context, what changes have occurred to recognise these background issues for prisoners who are unable to read?  In 1997 Tom Shannon was serving a life sentence when he began corresponding with Christopher Morgan, a gentlemen farmer, who had joined the pen pal scheme operated by the Prison Reform Trust (now operated by a separate company called Prisoners’ Penfriends).  Morgan went on to found the Shannon Trust which instigated changes in approaches to supporting and teaching illiterate prisoners, including establishing peer support programmes which trained literate prisoners to mentor prisoners who struggled to read (Shannon Trust, 2018).

During my study in Prison B I interviewed a group of such peer mentors to find out why they felt it is important to help non-reading prisoners.  I was fortunate that the lead mentor trainer wished to implement and share assistive technology in this prison setting.  She proved how the prison mentors could use the ReaderPen to support their non-reading peers as part of the mentor training programme.  The peer mentors in Prison B recognised their role and explained they offer their support in any setting, whether workshops, classrooms or on the wings, “anywhere we were needed”.  They were quick to pick up and use the ReaderPens which were available in the education department and commented that these would be a ‘good tool’.  However, since the pens could only be accessed within the education department, not in prisoner’s cells or on the wings, their ability to support use of the pens was limited.

Although the mentor programme is a fantastic resource a fundamental element of human nature, and a barrier particularly for prisoners, is trust.  In Prison B and C, the issue of trust and relying on others was raised as a consideration of whom you would ask to help.  One prisoner told me that he would wait for days until he felt he had a good mate that he was sure he could rely upon:

“I would have to wait two or three days before I could have a letter read to me because I don’t trust everyone you see?”.

Having a ReaderPen alleviated this trust difficulty and enabled him to be more independent.

So, if trust is a problem, and the prisoners are not taking their private correspondence into the education department the issue of access comes to the fore.  Peer mentors were not the only ones to recognise this hindrance and a group of participants in the 20% group of prisoners who were completely illiterate, spoke of this hurdle too.  These illiterate prisoners had started to read and were enjoying the experience.  They wished to do so in their own time, in order to access their own probation papers and other important documents.  In Prison C a prisoner told me that he had always hidden his inability to read from family members and work colleagues, however, now he had begun to read with the support of his tutor and the ReaderPen he wished to continue reading in his own time.  He offered a solution to his request to have the pen overnight in his cell; “signing for (the pen) for us to be responsible for it and having to give it back in the morning”.  His plea to prison management was as follows:

“… if you are going to talk to them [management], I would say to them it is their job

to improve people who have bad records, who can’t read or write;

it’s a great help for them to be educated,

for them to be able to see the other side of life”.

This prisoner has identified the ‘Them’ (readers) and the ‘Us’ (non-readers) divide and he clearly indicates that the inability to read is creating difficulties and choices for the non-reader.  He is describing Tajfel’s 1974 social identity theory, those within an ‘in-group’ will seek to find negative elements of the ‘out-group’ to promote their own sense of importance or superiority.  However, if such behaviour occurred within prisons then surely education and peer mentor support would not succeed?

Through potentially no fault of their own in-group behaviours, there continues to be a great number of obstacles occurring daily which allows the reader (‘in’) and non-reader (‘out’) groups to persist.  A major obstacle is:


During lockdowns prisoners will essentially spend all their time in their cells until the situation has been resolved.  So why do lockdowns occur?  There are a myriad of reasons: unacceptable behaviour, including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, drug use, self-harm or suicide, assaults on staff, insufficient prison staff to enable the safe movement of prisoners, and even industrial action as recently reported in a prison in the south west of England, when prison wardens were urged to walk out as a protest against prison violence levels (Wood and Davis, 2018).

Lockdowns may be over in a matter of minutes or may continue for longer periods of time, particularly when there are low staff numbers.  During my study at Prison B there was a period of non-movement of prisoners to and from the education department for 3 weeks.  This interruption can have an impact on the re-engagement of the learner, as identified by a tutor in Prison A.  He told me that when the prisoners return to the classroom it often takes time to settle students back into the surroundings of the classroom which wastes potential learning time.  Using his many years’ experience, he was able to accommodate this delay, however, it is easy to understand the fragility of re-establishing a relationship of trust and learning (Franklin, 2018) for other prison educators in similar situations.

To summarise, we have ‘in-group’ and ‘out-groups’, plus we have a distinctly poor childhood educational journey, and adverse childhood experiences plus the day to day reality of life in a prison with long periods of restricted movement denying access to assistive technology and support.  Seasoned prison educators will explain patiently to the most enthusiastic researcher who demand naively ‘why’ their brilliant new ideas are not being implemented and unfortunately, the reason is often:

the sudden removal of the prisoner!

Now, and I empathise, you may feel this incredulous statement leaves you feeling exceedingly sceptical?  However, it does occur!  Prisoners do disappear, and their teachers may be told nothing about it or if they are aware their student is scheduled to leave, they may not be able to track the prisoner or ensure he picks up where he left off within his next prison or outside, with probation.  Alternatively, the tutors experience a mixture of frustration (that their student did not complete their course); and joy (because their student was released!).  The educators in all 3 prisons I have visited have all expressed that movement of prisoners occurs on a frequent basis and how this impacts negatively on outcomes such as prisoner exam results.

Alongside this ‘missing students’ phenomenon, there is also no fixed ‘starting point’ to study in prison.  New students may start every week, so teachers must adapt to ensure they are covering their subject during the time available and engage the prisoner as effectively as possible from session one.  Consider the frustration of working towards getting a student to sit an examination when suddenly there is no student, and no exam because time has run out.  Students should have longer time periods to study and learn; inside and outside the education unit, especially in case of a lockdown or other restrictions. 

I am about to embark on a study with Prison D, who will help me look at the exam results for prisoners using the Exam ReaderPens.  Despite the ‘disappearing prisoner’, we hope to provide evidence supporting why we need to move onto our final major research study:

the prisoner using the ReaderPen in their cell!

This will enable the prisoner to access the written word, to validate their reading abilities, to gain confidence and independence, and perhaps be ready to take their exam sooner and therefore increasing the probability of achieving this within the time frame of their custodial sentence!   

Keep following my journey; please do read all my prison studies and I look forward to the next adventure when I hope I will not be as naive or overwhelmed by the complexities of education in prisons!

Christine Franklin


Franklin, C. (2018) Functional Skills Within Prisons – C-Pen ExamReader and ReaderPen Supporting Functional Skills in English, Levels 1-3 [Online].  Devon, Scanning Pens Ltd.  Available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56dea77e22482ee78112dd96/t/5b4c5fb08a922da49bb7c6ed/1531731892220/Final%2BResearch%2BReport%2B2018.pdf (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Gill, K., with Quilter-Pinner, H., and Swift, D. (October 2017) Making The Difference: Breaking the Link between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion [Online].  Available at https://www.ippr.org/files/2017-10/making-the-difference-report-october-2017.pdf (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Ministry of Justice, HM Prison Service and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (2018), Prison population figures: 2018, Population bulletin: weekly 5 October 2018, [Online].  Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2018 (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Moss, S. (2017), Half of Britain’s prisoners are functionally illiterate.  Can fellow inmates change that?  The Guardian, 15 June [Online].  Available at https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/jun/15/reading-for-freedom-life-changing-scheme-dreamt-up-by-prison-pen-pals-shannon-trust-action-for-equity-award (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Public Health Wales and Blackburn and Darwen Local Authority (undated) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) [Online].  Available at http://www.aces.me.uk/in-england/ (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Reavis, J. A., Looman, J., Franco, K. A, and Rojas, B. (2013), ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality: How Long Must We Live before We Possess Our Own Lives?’, The Permanente Journal, vol. Spring 2013, no 17.2, pp. 44-48 [Online}.  Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662280/ (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Shannon Trust, (2018), Our History [Online].  Available at https://www.shannontrust.org.uk/about-us/our-history/ (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Tajfel, H. (1974) ‘Social identity and intergroup behaviour’, SAGE journals, [Online].  Available at   http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/053901847401300204 (Accessed 11 October 2018).

Wood, A., and Davis, K. (2018) ‘Updates: Reports Bristol prison ‘lockdown’ as officers walk out’.  BristolLive, 14 December [Online].  Available at https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/live-bristol-prison-horfield-lockdown-2003094 (Accessed 11 October 2018).