A chain link

Locked up and left behind: investigating the prison education gap

Prison walls separate more than people, as where you stand in relation to those walls can also predict how likely you are to struggle with reading, writing, and speaking.

The National Literacy Trust reports that 62% of people beginning a prison sentence will have a reading age of about 11.

Meanwhile, at least 60% of children engaged with the youth justice system will have a language impairment, according to research by speech therapist Karen Bryan.

Compare that to the rest of the population, where only 10% of people will have a language impairment (Speech and Language UK).

So why do so many people in prison struggle with these skills?


EARLY DEVELOPMENT: There appear to be links between school exclusions and juvenile detention

Many people in prison had problems in school growing up.

According to the Children’s Commissioner, 85% of children in juvenile detention have faced school exclusion.

Rebecca Perry, Head of Adult Literacy and Criminal Justice at the National Literacy Trust, warned that illiteracy can also fly under the radar at schools.

She said: “There’s a really strong link between being excluded in school and going to prison.

“A lot of people in prison say they literally couldn’t read in school, and no one picked up on it. That’s a common story.”


LINGUISTIC ISSUES: Is there a wider issue of language development issues among those incarcerated?

Professor Maria Arche is a theoretical linguist at the University of Greenwich, who is currently undergoing a study with the Metropolitan Police researching how suspects with language development issues may be impacted by interrogation questions.

She said: “If suspects are facing questions that they cannot comprehend due to a developmental issue, they are being set up for failure.”

One hypothetical example is an interrogator asking ‘when did you say you left the shop?’.

The ‘when’ could create uncertainty for those with language acquisition issues. Does the interrogator mean to ask when they left the shop, or when they said they left the shop?

While research into these interrogations are ongoing, it raises a grim question.

Could there be a lot of people in prison with language development issues because they weren’t given an interrogation suited to their needs?


A motion signed by 35 MPs earlier this year condemned prison education in the strongest terms.

It read: “This house believes the current for-profit system of prison education wastes millions of pounds of public money each year and encourages a race to the bottom between the four main providers in terms of quality of education.”

But what opportunities are there really for people in prison to educate themselves?

The National Literacy Trust organises a range of activities to encourage prisoners to develop their literacy.

One major accomplishment is National Prison Radio, based in Brixton Prison and run by inmates, for inmates. From there, they broadcast to 80,000 cells.

Similarly, Books Unlocked is a project in partnership with the Booker Prize offering free books to inmates. Booker Prize winning authors have even visited prisons as part of the scheme, including Max Porter and Sarah Waters.

NATIONAL PRISON RADIO: One of the initiatives working to improve education for prisoners

Mima Edye-Lindner is Project Manager at Give A Book, a charity that runs reading groups in prisons.

In her work, Mima has worked with prisoners across London, from Thameside to Wandsworth to Brixton.

However, Mima is empathic that education isn’t necessarily the point.

She said: “It’s not about reading for education, it’s about reading for pleasure.

“Books let you travel the world without having to move your feet. And that is probably one of the reasons books are so popular in prison. It’s total escapism.”

While the outside world debates the quality of prison education, people on the inside make us question if we haven’t missed the point.

The future?

Despite all the challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic.

The Literacy Trust was recently given a government grant of £720,000 towards helping inmates with their literacy outside the traditional classroom structure.

With many people in prison having difficult experiences at school, a traditional learning structure may be alienating to them.

Perry said: “For a lot of people, sitting down in a classroom just isn’t going to work. They may totally refuse to engage in education at all.”

Meanwhile, Dr Arche feels hopeful that greater awareness of language development issues will bring about change.

She said: “Any opportunity to mention the problem has to be taken.”

From the classroom to the cellblock, things are starting to change.

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