MP Guy Opperman says teach prisoners to read and write

Prisoner reading in cell Could teaching prisoners to read radically cut reoffending?

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For decades our prison population has been growing but now one Conservative MP has come up with a solution - force inmates to learn to read and write.

It is estimated around half of prisoners cannot read or write. Hexham backbencher and lawyer Guy Opperman believes unless that is tackled reoffending will remain a significant problem.

He is suggesting judges impose literacy courses as part of prison sentences with offenders required to complete them before release.

Prisons crisis

It is just one of the ideas in a book Guy Opperman has written about how to tackle what he says is a crisis in our prison service.

In Doing Time, the MP also says the drug culture in our jails must be eliminated.

But he also suggests that churches, charities and communities ought to be given the opportunity to run what he calls Big Society prisons.

Start Quote

Guy Opperman

Too often my clients in prison simply could not read or write”

End Quote Guy Opperman MP Conservative, Hexham

Many of the ideas - including those on literacy - come from Mr Opperman's personal experience as a criminal barrister. He became an MP in 2010.

He writes: "The sad reality in my experience is that very few clients were able to give you any meaningful written instructions.

"Too often my clients in prison simply could not read or write. It was very humbling."

The solution he believes is to make sure prisoners do leave jail with improved literacy and numeracy skills.

He says as few as one in five prisoners who need help actually seek it or receive it in prison.

So as well as imposing literacy courses as part of a prison sentence, he suggests that criminals be offered an early release if they complete them.

Basic skills

He said: "Many criminals are released early and we know that attaining this motivates those in jail to behave.

"If we allow judges to sentence criminals to literacy courses we can harness that motivation to give them the basic skills that will make them less likely to offend again."

The Conservative MP also calls for much stronger action to get drugs out of prisons.

Prison window behind barbed wire Guy Opperman believes there must be tougher security to get drugs out of our prisons

He wants tougher screening of all those who enter or visit prison to try and keep drugs out.

He believes the government should trial a scheme where everyone entering a jail - from Home Secretary to relative - should be scanned or x-rayed, and if necessary, physically searched - something that does not happen at the moment.

He also wants every offender drug tested on admission and mandatory treatment programmes for those who are known users.

Mr Opperman also believes drug-free wings have to be created to make sure offenders who want to get clean can do.

And once again he says offenders should be offered an early release if they complete drug treatment programmes.

Big Society prisons

Where the MP's ideas get even more radical is on who should run prisons.

Many still oppose the idea of private companies running jails.

But Mr Opperman thinks the government should go further and create Big Society prisons.

He writes: "Why can't you have a charity running a prison or a church and community coming together to take charge and turn around low-grade prisoners.

Start Quote

Guy Opperman

Why can't you have a charity running a prison or a church and community coming together to take charge and turn around low-grade prisoners”

End Quote Guy Opperman MP Conservative. Hexham

"Imagine a prison run not by the public sector, or for profit - 'a third way' in the community, by the community, and for those from that community who have fallen by the wayside."

As an example he points to Norway where communities run prisons and reintegrate offenders.

Of course these are all interesting - and potentially contentious - ideas.

But in some cases they may also need extra resources.

'Prison works'

Mr Opperman argues the upfront costs of action on literacy and drugs will repay themselves by preventing the "revolving door" of reoffending.

But the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said he wants to bring down the costs of prisons. And he has said he has no particular aim to cut the number of inmates.

It remains unclear then how much time the minister who said "prison works" will have for Mr Opperman's suggestions.

In addition, there has been criticism that government cuts have already hit existing rehabilitation programmes.

But Mr Opperman believes the crisis in the prisons service offers an opportunity to recognise the problems and seek radical solutions.

Not everyone will agree with his ideas, but with each inmate costing the public purse £45,000-a-year it is timely to ask whether there is a better approach.

Richard Moss Article written by Richard Moss Richard Moss Political editor, North East & Cumbria

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  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    #7. David

    Shocked eh?

    How about having a whole government whose only life experience is of market research and Eton. No not the radio; simply the school they went to. We are being led by folk that know nothing.

    Little wonder that offenders are of a similar ilk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I am genuinely shocked that someone can go to prison unable to read, write and do basic calculation and not undergo education to remedy the failure of our education system. Learning should be mandatory for prisoners, counting toward release.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    education is important for everyone and so for prisoners too. Literacy would open up so many doors and opportunities and encourage people to use those skills. Sure, the upfront cost might be huge but in the long term it would result in fewer inmates and custodial sentences. If only Grayling would consider it more...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Those who see this as positive suggestion might be interested in this

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    At last a politician, and a Conservative one at that, talking sense about prison. If prisoners can be rehabilitated - which I believe the majority can - then the eventual long-term savings to the government purse could be in the billions. There is the added benefit that as the number of re-offenders fall, the resources spent can the be channeled towards the more difficult prisoners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I think a "Big Society" type prison would be a great idea and would eliminate any sort of profit motive. A reform in HMP system could only be positive now, if you look at the levels of criminal activity in the UK as well as the costs of running a prison. NB- HMP already offer literacy courses which are oversubscribed and most prisons search people going to visit and sniffer dogs are there too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Can more of our politicians rise above soundbite politics and take up ideas like this. The reasons that some people offend again and again should be explored. Is crime the only way some people can get money?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    This is such a sensible and mature idea. Please don't try to coarsen it by writing 'force inmates to learn...', could I suggest 'teach prisoners to learn...'



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