About 16% of the general population is illiterate in the United Kingdom, against roughly 50% of the prison population. How does illiteracy change one’s life in prison? Why are reading and writing so important?
Noel Smith learned to read and write while serving time in prison. Literacy fundamentally changed his perspective on life and pushed him to further develop himself through education. Today, he is an author and editor for Inside Time, a newspaper published for prisoners that also serves as a platform for them to speak out.
Prison Insider talked with Noel Smith and he shared with us his story.
I was forever getting nicked for things that I did not know were against the prison rules because I could not read the prison rulebook.
Prison Insider. How does being illiterate change life in prison?¶
Noel Smith. I first went to prison when I was 14. I had been in and out of school intermittently. We moved around a lot with my family. I was not that great at reading, I could only recognise some words. When I arrived in prison, they made me take an education test, as per the norm for juveniles entering detention. I obtained 97% in English and 3% in math. It turned out that I had a condition called dyspraxia, which does not allow me to recognise numbers properly. I knew enough to work out my sentences and count how much money I had stolen, but other than that, I was illiterate - especially when it came to math. Even though my English was 97%, I could not read or write, which put me at a serious disadvantage.
When you are in prison, you are in the dark. Nobody explains anything to you. They give you a set of rules when you come in and you are supposed to read them and digest them. If you cannot read, there is nobody there to read them to you.
I was forever getting nicked for things that I did not know were against the prison rules because I could not read the prison rulebook. They have introduction courses now, but that was not the case when I first came into prison. If you cannot read, you may see a sign at the end of the landing that says “no prisoners beyond this point”, but you are not going to get what it says… so you just go ahead and pass beyond that point. Next thing you know, you are nicked. Before I could read, my default setting in any situation was violence. I could not argue properly. I ended up in a lot of trouble. It took a lock up and a lot of beatings over the years until I actually found out that I could write.
If I could write, I could write a complaint. If I could write a complaint, I could get better results and stop ending up in a block with my head caved in.
At that time, when I was a young prisoner, there were not a lot of other activities in prison. I was a quite disruptive prisoner, most times probably because I was bored. I had no stimulus because I could not read books. While other prisoners were going to the library and spending hours reading in their cells, I was just wandering around counting the bricks in the wall and getting the number wrong. I was put in solitary confinement on Christmas 1977, after having attempted escape and assaulted a prison officer. I spent nine months in an underground cell in solitary confinement with just a piss pot for a toilet, which I had to empty every morning and every evening. You were allowed to come out of the cell only to get a book from a collection down the blocks in a filing cabinet. They were mainly old ex-Navy books that had been donated to the prison. I would go out every day and I would get a book, just for the sake of getting out of my cell. I would take it and kick it around the floor like a football or use it as a pillow. A Roman Catholic priest used to come down every day. He was looking through the hatchet to make sure everyone was alright. Eventually, he saw me kicking the book around and asked me why. I told him I could not read, and he took it upon himself to teach me how. He would come daily, even though he had to stay outside the cell for safety reasons. He brought in some easy reader books, and I could ask him if I stumbled across a word that I did not know.
PI. Knowing how to read and write. What change did it make while you were in prison?¶
NS. It made my life in prison much more comfortable. I finally had something to occupy my mind with, rather than causing trouble all the time. When I eventually came out of the disciplinary block, I thought to myself, “You know what, I’m gonna try and get some sort of education here and try to change my ways”. I was serving three years as a juvenile, so I applied for a draftsman’s course in Bristol. When they looked at my education level, they responded, “No, you wouldn’t be able to understand, it’s a bit too much for you”. Due to a lack of education, I was written off at a very early age and discarded.
In 1999, a prison officer at Belmarsh prison sidled up to me and said, “I think I liked you better in the old days”. He had known me when I was a young screw in Rochester. I went white, and he said, “Well, you used to throw a few punches and we could drag you down, beat you up and that would be the end of it. Now, I’ve got a ream of paperwork from your complaints. I’ll be glad to see you leave this prison. If you were still fighting, I wouldn’t mind, there’d be no paperwork”.
I was resorting to violence because I did not know any other way. Once I discovered the power of the pen, the game changed exponentially. I decided that I would never write a trivial complaint.
It had to be about something that was genuine and something that really needed to be changed. I went from being an uneducated person, unable to read, to a man who had the knowledge. I then pursued A level in law, and I completed my journalism course with the London School of Journalism. Suddenly, I was not violent. I was angry, but I could see another way of doing things. This saved me so many beatings and so much loss of remission. Finally, I was able to put what I was complaining about into words and hand it over.
Years later, I put in a request under the Freedom of Information act to get my files from the early days of my detention. I saw that somebody had noted in my file that I was “educationally subnormal”. It said, “Smith is part of the small group of boys who are destined to spend their lives in and out of institutions. Give him nothing”.
Politicians pay a lot of lip service to the word rehabilitation, but in reality, very little is done.
NS. The prison actually begged me to take a course on journalism freelance feature writing and editing with the London School of Journalism. The prison paid for that. That was before 1990, but the whole system changed after that. Before the Strangeways riot in 1990, education in prison was not really valued. They only wanted people to be able to understand the rules and so would give you only a basic level of education. The average wage a prisoner would receive was £7.50 a week for education. If you went into workshops, you could earn up to £30 a week, putting washers on bolts or packing sick packs for airplanes. Before Strangeways, if you were fairly well-educated and you wanted to do a degree, the prison would fund you for that. A lot of people did degree courses and a lot of people worked their way out of prison like that.
The prison system got better between 1990 and the end of 1991 because people started looking around for ways to improve the prisoners. One of the ways was education. Suddenly, education was a big thing.
Then, in 1991,a conservative home secretary called Michael Howard came in. He put everyone was back in their cells. Nobody was getting education anymore, and only a few people were working. Since that time, if you want to pursue a degree or any form of education in prison, it will not be funded. You need to be supported by an outside charity and beg, cap in hand, for them to fund your education. We have a prison population of 90,000, and two third of them have the reading and writing skills of a child under 12. You have got these vast swathes of uneducated people in prison, but the prison system does nothing for them.
The most embarrassing thing about the British prison system is that you could go into the prison system unable to read and write, spend 30 years in that system, and come out still unable to read and write.
I was lucky because things fell into place for me, but thousands of prisoners nowadays are not so lucky. Most of them have very little education, past trauma, and they go into a place where people think they are going to be made fit for society. That is not the case. Politicians pay a lot of lip service to the word rehabilitation, but in reality, very little is done. It is like tiny little islands in a great big ocean of rubbish.
I went down at the Rochester prison, in Kent, about four or five years ago. They had a fantastic scheme. They have mainly young prisoners. English Heritage went into that prison and said, “Look, we’d like to train some of your prisoners as stonemasons. They’ll never be outworked and we’ll offer them jobs after they’ve become stonemasons. The course takes 18 months to two years”. I saw some of the stuff they had made down there, and it was brilliant. But here is the rub: out of 700 people in the prison, the course could only take 12 prisoners. Twelve prisoners every two years are getting a form of real rehabilitation and education. They are set up for work in the future, while the rest are falling by the wayside. They do not put enough emphasis on education. It is the really poor cousin to industrial work and cleaning services in the prison system.
For you to be heard on the outside, you have to take extreme action, otherwise nobody is going to know the truth.
PI. Why is it important for prisoners to have a voice?¶
NS. The prison system is very dark and secretive. They do not want people knowing what is going on. Until the 80s, there was no written complaint process in prison. You had to make a petition to the Home Office. These were always turned down: nobody could get access to the outside world. The only way prisoners had to alert the outside world was to get on roofs and write on banners, just like in the Strangeways riot. People were dying in that prison. At one point, the murder rate inside the prison system was seven times higher than the outside world. The prison administrations never want to show their reports. They just tolerate you having letters and visits from your family - even while all letters are read and censored, every phone call you make is listened to and recorded. They have a police liaison officer in the prison whose sole job is to listen to taped phone calls from prisoners. For you to be heard on the outside, you have to take extreme action, otherwise nobody is going to know the truth.
One of the ideas that emerged during Strangeways riot was for prisoners to have their own national newspaper. They would write in and ask the rules. Basically, they would have an information platform where their voices could be heard. They would write letters and let people know what’s happening to them, the good and the bad. That way, people would not think the only way of getting heard was to go on a roof or to take a prison officer as a hostage. We wanted to set up something to replace that kind of action.
I was actually in prison when Inside Time started. I wrote one of the first letters, never thinking it would get published. But then, it did: we now had a voice in the outside world.
Inside Time has grown over the years, it used to be coming out quarterly with six to eight pages. Now, it is monthly and every issue roughly counts 60 pages. It goes all over the world without any campaign for dissemination. Home Office could cancel it at any time, but luckily over the years they have not. Anyone inside can write a piece and if it is relevant, it gets to the outside world. People can read it, the paper goes to other countries, to prisoners abroad, to judges, a lot of solicitors, barristers, prisoners’ families, and even to visiting rooms so prisoners’ families can pick it up and get a taste of what it’s like in prison.
This has brought a massive change. Thirty years ago, we did not have anything like that. You know, it is still very difficult today for prisoners to talk to the press, get a phone call or a visit from a journalist. When I was in prison, they refused me this many times. But now at least there is somewhere you can write to, where the people are going to publish your argument, and not judge you for it. We get a lot of contributions by sex offenders, but we do not care who writes in. If they are prisoners, they are equal as far as we are concerned. They all have the right to air their grievances or get their stories out. Some even praise the prison, they praise the courses that they like. Other than Inside Time, there are not a lot of ways that prisoners can get to the outside.