PLA case study #4 - Angela Cairns, Shannon Trust

Angela CairnsWhat does Shannon Trust do?

Shannon Trust supports prisoners who can read to teach prisoners who can’t. It’s a simple concept: prisoner mentors spend 20 minutes a day, five days a week with Learners working through Turning Pages, our reading programme. We work closely with prisons across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and have a dedicated team of over 120 volunteers. Our 'by prisoners for prisoners' ethos is very important to us and the Reading Plan not only changes the lives of learners but has huge benefits for our mentors. In 2015, over 4,000 prisoners became Shannon Trust Reading Plan Learners, supported by nearly 2,000 mentors.

Why is this important?

Imagine if you couldn’t read this article, chose what to eat from a menu, fill in applications for services, courses, training or apply for jobs. Imagine if you couldn’t read to your children. Not being able to read impacts everyday life and the stigma attached to it means it’s often a hidden problem.

For people in prison, the situation is far worse. Being a non-reader is isolating. It makes people more vulnerable to bullying and creates a huge barrier to engaging with the education and training which can help to get a job on release. We know staying in touch with family and friends is a key factor to a successful return to life in the community so being able to read their letters makes a tremendous difference.

Learning to read is a gateway activity which changes lives. It not only helps people to function in everyday prison life but also to see themselves differently. It helps people to develop positive identities and begin a longer learning journey. A mentor recently said learning to read is “like opening a door to a whole new world of possibilities, excitement and experiences.

Can you give an example of someone who has benefited from your work?

I could but I’ll let Darren tell you in his own words…

My name is Darren. I am an IPP prisoner and I have been in prison for over five years and up until about 12 months or so ago I just blagged my way though this reading thing.

I would say things like I’ve forgot my glasses or my vision is a bit blurred for what ever reason when I was asked to read. When I was with other people I would pretend to read letters just to make me feel normal but after I found out one of my friends was a Reading Plan mentor I would ask him to with apps and things.

Since I have been working with him it has changed my life for the better because I can now read letters and reply to my family and friends. It makes my everyday life easier because I can now read any letters sent out by the prison informing us that something is going to happen on a certain day. In the past it would happen and I would kick off and say no-one told us it was going to happen when In fact a notice had been put out but I wasn’t able to read it. So for that reason alone I am very thankful to the Shannon Trust for giving me the chance to learn at my own speed.

I honestly think if my grandmother was still alive she would be so proud that I’ve done this and I know she would say "I told you Darren, you’re never too old to learn" and doing this at 33 years of age just proves that.

Not being able to read impacts everyday life and the stigma attached to it means it’s often a hidden problem.

What are you busy with at the moment?

We have a strategic aim to increase the number of new learners across the prison estate. When you see the difference learning to read makes to someone’s life and know there are many more people who could benefit it becomes imperative as many people as possible can access the Reading Plan. As strong believers in a whole-prison approach, we are working on a new way of embedding the Reading Plan into everyday prison life, giving the best possible opportunities for people to gain reading skills and build confidence and go onto further training and learning. 

What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your work?

We support over 4,000 prisoners a year to learn to read, but there are potentially thousands more who are struggling. For me, this is by far the biggest challenge we have – to reach, engage and help more people in prison to change their lives by learning to read. However, we also face the challenge of working in over 120 prisons, all of which operate in a slightly different way. What’s really important is building and maintaining strong relationships with prison staff at a local level so everyone knows what the Shannon Trust Reading Plan is and how it can help.

How do you feel about the future of the education offered to prisoners?

The Coates Review highlighted lots of opportunities for education in prisons to provide training and learning that best fits the needs of people in prison regardless of their circumstances. Those opportunities still exist, however much depends on what whether a change of Justice Secretary leads to a change in direction. I’m hopefully that the use of peer mentors to teach reading and other skills will continue to be championed as a fantastic methodology for learners who struggle to engage with traditional classroom learning.

Could you suggest a book, film, programme, podcast or article that you have found inspiring or resonates with your work?

Shannon Trust was born out of a correspondence between our founder Christopher Morgan and Tom Shannon, a life sentenced prisoner. Christopher published their letters in a book called, The Invisible Crying Tree and used the proceeds to form Shannon Trust. It’s a book that takes you through the whole range of emotions. I first read it when I was applying to work for the charity was so inspired by it I sent a copy to my mum. She read it twice.