Prisoner literacy: ‘When you pick up a book you’re not thinking of being locked in the cell’

Literacy ambassadors say they tell prisoners: ‘It’s not like learning when we were in school. It’s completely different’

Paul O'Rourke in Cork this week. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

“It was the first time in my life I had positive role models,” says Paul O’Rourke, of his time in prison. It’s 10.30 in the morning and he’s speaking to a classroom full of prisoners in the middle of Portlaoise Prison. He talks softly and passionately about how he embraced learning and is now a student in Cork. Prison governor Ultan Moran is here, as is the headmaster of the prison’s school, David Higgins, some representatives from NALA (National Adult Literacy Agency) and several teachers from the school including English and literacy teacher Shauna Gilligan.

A very large number of prisoners have issues with literacy. NALA reports that 70 per cent of prisoners left school at about 14 years of age. During O’Rourke’s visit, 15 prisoners are being awarded certificates to indicate they are trained NALA literacy ambassadors and each man has been allowed to bring a friend from their prison block. I interviewed some of the original ambassadors in early 2022. O’Rourke was also involved in the early years of the programme. Ambassadors are trained to help their fellow inmates with reading and writing and to encourage them to engage with the teachers at the school. The programme pioneered here has, since I last reported on it, spread to eight other prisons, sometimes assisted by men who were transferred from Portlaoise.

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The men encourage each other and cheer when each one goes up to collect his certificate. Four prisoners are also being recognised for their role creating a NALA, Irish Prison Service and Laois and Offaly ETB-supported book by and for prisoners about life in prison. Two prisoners speak from the podium with reference to their own hand-written notes, something they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past. Helen Ryan and Michael Power from NALA speak about the bravery it takes to engage with learning and the unfair social stigma people face for their literacy problems. The new ambassadors put on new NALA T-shirts that declare “Learning changes lives” for a photo. Someone wolf-whistles and there’s laughter.

Paul O’Rourke nearly didn’t make it on time today. His train flew straight by Portlaoise station. “The driver had a hot date in Dublin,” jokes the chaplain, Joe O’Rourke, (no relation to Paul), who had gone to pick Paul up. Paul O’Rourke jumped on the first train back to Portlaoise and arrived at the prison just in time. “When Paul meets a wall or a door or something he can’t get through, he talks to the man above and the door seems to open and the wall falls down,” says the chaplain.

Shauna Gilligan and David Higgins, who help run a literacy programme in Portlaoise prison, Co. Laois. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

O’Rourke tells the prisoners about how learning literally changed his life. He talks about the support he got from the teachers but also from his fellow prisoners and how he continued on with his education outside prison, despite, for the first 10 months of his freedom, dealing with homelessness. He’s now studying in Cork College of Commerce and engaged in research in University College Cork (UCC). He found college a little intimidating at first, he says. “But sure, I’ve been in prison. College is nothing after that.” Everyone laughs. “So stay with education. Start reading and get your mind going.”

At the end of his talk there’s a cheer. Refreshments arrive – sandwiches, chips, goujons, coffee, tea, Coca-Cola, Lucozade. Kevin*, who created the artwork for the aforementioned book, shows me his favourite painting – one featuring the Ha’penny Bridge. It makes him think of his home in Dublin. “He never painted before prison,” says Jim*, another prisoner who spoke earlier. “When I came to prison, I couldn’t read or write. Not one word . . . I needed it all my life. I missed it all my life.”

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“I wanted to be able to write letters home,” says his friend Peter*. “Shauna helped me with that . . . I sent a letter home, but the great thing was getting a letter back from my partner and being able to read it.”

I go to the music room across the corridor to talk to Simon* and Mark*, two of the original literacy ambassadors. Nearby, a man is picking out Dirty Old Town on a banjo (there’s a prison band called the P19s, named after the prison’s disciplinary process). Simon and Mark both have literacy tutor qualifications from Waterford Institute of Technology. When Simon first came to prison, he couldn’t read or write properly, he says. “One of the lads, fair play to him . . . when he was reading fantasy books, he’d read it out loud.” Simon always loved fantasy films, he tells me. “It made me want to learn how to read so I could enjoy a story by myself . . . When you pick up a book, the imagination takes you to that world, so you’re not thinking of being locked in the cell.”

The ambassador programme formalises a process that happens organically in prison. In the normal course of events prisoners who have difficulty reading and writing will ask other prisoners to help them. “They’ll want us to read the newspaper for them,” says Simon.

I love looking at words and how they’re put together . . . When I was reading or doing my homework, I wasn’t in a cell

“Letters to family too,” says Mark.

“Or some lad wants to help his daughter with her homework when he gets out,” says Simon.

The literacy ambassadors help anyone who asks but they also use this as an opportunity to encourage the prisoner to engage with education. “We say to them, ‘It’s not like learning when we were in school’,” says Mark. “It’s completely different.”

“Some fellas feel more comfortable talking to another prisoner,” says Simon. “The first thing I do is sit down with them and tell my story and how I was the same as them. Then once they work with us, they progress on to the teachers, who are brilliant.”

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O’Rourke comes into the music room. When he first came to Portlaoise Prison he was both struggling with addiction – his conviction was for drug possession – and literacy. He was dyslexic but he went undiagnosed for decades, so was frequently written off as being disruptive in school when he was a child. He managed to get sober. Then, encouraged by some older prisoners, he started going to the prison’s school, improving his literacy and amassing qualifications – a lot of them. He realised that he loved to learn.

Literacy Ambassadors in the prison.

When he left prison in 2021, he was homeless for 10 months, but eventually began studying youth work in Cork College of Commerce. He was also recruited as a researcher for a research programme about ex-prisoners and their experiences on leaving prison run by UCC’s sociology and criminology department. “UCC were looking for three lads to do peer-to-peer research. Normally, when people are researching people getting out of prison and into homelessness it’s academics, but we were prisoners . . . One lad was imprisoned 12 years ago, [one] six years ago, and I was just out. So we all had different stories . . . We’d interview other ex-prisoners about their journeys.”

Does he remember the first books he read after he caught the bug for reading? He laughs. “The first book I read was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Then I would have read a book on the history of Manchester United. I would have read a lot of Eckhart Tolle, a lot of spirituality and Buddhism . . . When I was younger, I was listening to hip hop and got into Eminem . . . So when I was here, I’d listen to his music and take the words and then read and listen . . . I love looking at words and how they’re put together . . . When I was reading or doing my homework, I wasn’t in a cell.”

*Pseudonyms have been used for prisoners’ names