— Ellie Broughton

Positive News: Prisoners are fighting illiteracy where they are

Shannon Trust volunteers reading

Since most of us learn to read and write in the first year or two of school, it feels almost impossible to imagine not being able to. But Angela Cairns, CEO of prisoners reading charity Shannon Trust, knows all too well how illiteracy can feel

Half of England’s prisoners are illiterate. Since most of us learn to read and write in the first year or two of school, it feels almost impossible to imagine. But Angela Cairns, CEO of prisoners reading charity Shannon Trust, knows all too well how illiteracy can feel.

“I sometimes hear a prisoner describing themselves as a ‘bad ‘un’. They say: ‘I was a bad ‘un because I was frustrated’, ‘because I couldn’t read the letters and notices that went around’, or ‘I couldn’t choose what I wanted to eat from a menu card, so I’m just randomly picking’. These are people who feel they have so little control over their lives that they can’t even choose what to eat.”

There are several charities that teach prisoners how to read, but Shannon Trust is unique: all of its 2,000 or so mentors are prisoners themselves. Prisoner–mentors, working with the charity, are helping more than 4,000 other inmates learn to read. The need is huge: 50 per cent of all prisoners in England are ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning they have a reading age of 11 or lower, while many are completely illiterate. The impact on their employability, unsurprisingly, is huge. You can read more about that story on the Positive News website, and in the magazine. 

Positive News is a media co-operative owned by readers and journalists worldwide, and profits are reinvested in journalism. In 2015 Positive News became a community benefit society (a form of co-op) invested in by more than 1,500 people in 33 countries, age 18-89, who each have equal influence. They’re just about the best people to work for, and it was great to have the chance to profile the Sharon Trust for their latest issue.

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