Why education is so important for prisoner rehabilitation in SVG
Our Readers' Opinions
June 4, 2024

Why education is so important for prisoner rehabilitation in SVG

EDITOR: In an article in the Searchlight December 2020, Superintendent Hazelwood stated that 66% of inmates in HMP Kingstown & HMP Belle Isle, were repeat offenders. More statistics were given in the article as to the number of young offenders both male and female and the types of offences and their locations. The article highlighted some of the challenges at that time, however no mention of rehabilitation.

St. Vincent & the Grenadines is a small community, and we are now more than ever aware through the media and other technology of the increase in crime both petty and violent within the State.

One particular way to help reduce recidivism (repeat offenders) in the country is through education and being able to read and comprehend material.

In 2019 with support of the Maria Holder Trust of Barbados under the auspices of Hand2Earth, St. Vincent & the Grenadines launched the New Leaf Literacy Programme. This programme was able to purchase manuals and reading books from the Shannon Trust UK an NGO who use volunteers to visit inmates in UK prisons to help with their reading abilities. There were several challenges facing the New Leaf Literacy Programme in St. Vincent & the Grenadine; one being COVID and the subsequent eruption of the Soufriere as well as the seeming reluctance of the prison authorities to accommodate this type of programme. These events put the programme on hold for a while and fortunately, with the Maria Holder Trust and Hand2Earth continued support enabled the programme to continue to its fruition. The New Leaf Literacy Programme was very successful in encouraging inmates to come forward to be trained as mentors within the prison to help other inmates with their reading abilities.

Many inmates in both HMP Kingstown and HMP Belle Isle have had their education truncated through various reasons. Many inmates did not complete their Primary school education, and some dropped out at early Secondary level. Many of the inmates reading abilities and reading levels, as well as their reading comprehension abilities were well below their chronological ages. There is possibly a large proportion of inmates who have specific learning differences. These differences such as Dyslexia, Attention Deficit & Hyperactive disorders among others, can have a profound impact on how one acquires reading skills.

Why is reading important in prisons? Improving reading in prisons is not just helping prisoners to get work on release, it goes much deeper. Reading provides an escape from reality, it helps us relax, reduces stress, feeds the imagination, grows empathy, helps us understand other people’s perspectives, expands vocabulary and broadens our minds. Making sure inmates gain basic standards of numeracy and literacy while inside and ensuring every single prisoner has a basic level of English and Maths so they are equipped for work on release.

The age ranges of the inmates who participated in the New Leaf Literacy Programme were from early twenties to mid fifties. Inmates who showed interest in joining the programme were given a reading test at the commencement of their training and tested again on completion of the course. The reading test was able to determine the inmates reading age, Grade level and percentile as well as his/her Grapheme/Phoneme abilities. The initial reading test was then compared with the final reading test at the end of the course. Classes took place within the prison twice a week for 15- 17 weeks.

The Turning Pages Manuals and readers issued by the Shannon Trust UK comprises of five friendly structured manuals that use a synthetic phonics approach. The course encourages the active use of correct phoneme pronunciation, cloze procedure and numerous activities to help reinforcement. Approximately 30 inmates, in groups of five or more were trained as mentors by the New Leaf Literacy programme using the Shannon Trust material.

All trained mentors at the end of the course improved their reading ability. On completion, inmates that completed the course were given their Mentor certificates. To date all mentors have now two or more learners within the prison whom they are helping.

The success of the mentor training indicated the ability of the inmates to improve their reading skills. Those whose reading level at entry to the programme was at the primary stage or lower, read at Form 3 level and higher and all their phoneme percentiles increased. Those whose reading ability was at lower secondary level then improved to Post high school level. All inmates worked hard to improve their reading skills.

Hand2Earth with the Maria Holder Trust also encouraged the Belle Isle Correctional Facility to allow certain small rooms on the cell blocks to be used as libraries since there is no main library at Belle Isle. These rooms were painted by inmates and decorated with relevant learning materials. The prison workshop also made tables, chairs, blackboards and bookcases for these rooms. Unfortunately, lack of adequate supervision has enabled some of the rooms to be missing furniture and door locks; however, those inmates trained in the mentor scheme, persevere and are doing their best. Any donations of books to these libraries both at Belle Isle and Kingstown would be welcomed. Sad to say the library in HMP Kingstown though refurbished a few years ago by Hand2Earth has fallen out of use and needs another refurbishment and adequate supervision.

Being able to read, have access to a library, hands on activities, physical exercise, quiet(er) spaces for inmates to acquire skills, sustainable educational skills woodworking, electronics, sewing, cooking, etc. should all be regularly available for inmates, with suitably qualified persons sourced through the Ministry of Education or through corporate or private enterprise. All courses undertaken by an inmate must be certifiable and encourage an inmate to pursue his acquired skill after being released from prison.

All new entrants into HMP Prisons in St. Vincent & the Grenadines should be given a reading test by a competent prison officer. A reading level age should be attained from this test. This will indicate the reading level of that inmate and a mentor in the prison who has been trained by the New Leaf Literacy Programme can help this inmate improve his reading ability. Reading ‘lesson’ should be mandatory in prison and inmates at whatever level should participate.

Any sustainable educational programme introduced into the prison system in St. Vincent & the Grenadines will benefit both inmates and prison personnel and will bring kudos to the prison management and the island as a whole. It is a way forward for a partnership of the prison authorities with NGO’s and other organisations that wish to help in reducing recidivism and possible further criminal activities.

Sustainable educational programmes encourage inmates to be busy. By being busy there will be fewer incidents of violence. Anger management courses should be a MUST. Knowing how to handle anger and frustrations in stressful situations is part and parcel of learning.

Lynden Punnett BA,Cert,Ed,Dip.TEFL.Dip.SpLD(Dyslexia) Hand2Earth, New Leaf Literacy Programme.