Cayman’s revolving prison door

| 05/05/2008

By Wendy Ledger

Although not everyone who has problems with literacy will end up in jail, a disproportionate number of prisoners are functionally illiterate. The vast majority of inmates at HMP Northward, more than 80%, are struggling with basic reading and writing skills.

While there is a significant body of evidence to support the theory that crime and illiteracy or low educational achievement are directly linked, those few inmates that voluntarily attend reading classes at Northward receive only two hours tuition per week. Moreover, a return to crime after release is far more common among illiterate prisoners and a persistent problem for Cayman’s prison population.

Getting out of a life of crime when you cannot read is also extremely difficult and the primary reason why so many prisoners re-offend and return to jail with increasing regularity. Northward’s revolving door, it appears, is directly linked to the failure to equip prisoners with the skills they need to lead a crime-free life – not least how to read.

At the end of 2006, regional criminology expert Yolande Forde published a report examining the factors relating to criminal behaviour in Cayman and why people were inclined to commit crime. In the study she revealed that many inmates serving time in HMP Northward had gone through the school system without ever having their reading problems addressed. Having been failed by the education system, they were later failed by the criminal justice system.

“Many of the same people who commit crime appear before the court time and time again,â€Â she said. “The formal processes of the justice system do not focus on the causes of criminality. Rather they aim to determine the legality or illegality of the act.â€Â

She explained that by focusing on culpability and meting out punishment, the Cayman Islands had created an inbalance in the approach to crime with little attention having been paid to the causes of criminal behaviour.

Since the report was published, Education Minister Alden McLaughlin has made enormous strides in addressing the inadequacies in the education system, which will in future, hopefully, prevent youngsters with learning difficulties from falling through the cracks. Future educational changes, however, will do nothing for the existing prison population, which currently has very limited access to any kind of basic educational provision.

It costs around $53,000 per year to keep an inmate at HMP Northward while they serve their time waiting to be released back into the community to, more often than not, re-offend. Historically, Northward has functioned as little more than a holding facility for habitual offenders, with both rehabilitation and education in short supply.

The creation of the post of Commissioner of Corrections in 2006, filled by Dr William Rattray, was expected to herald in a new era for the prison and what was hoped would be a move towards reducing recidivism rates through rehabilitation. Since his arrival, the prison staff have undergone numerous training programmes and various reports and assessments of the prison population have been made. 

This week, Government Information Services (GIS) sent out a media release announcing that, in partnership with the probationary service, the prison system would be introducing an individualised plan for each inmate serving a sentence of two years or more and for those released on probation. The idea behind the initiative is to tailor corrective measures using a multi-disciplinary approach to help the individual avoid re-offending.

When CNS spoke to Dr Rattray, he explained that this new measure would focus on what is termed crimogenic need. He said the risk and needs assessments were associated with behavioural issues and would determine the needs of the prisoner from a cognitive perspective. In other words, the assessments would established what type of behavioural programme would be suitable to address the problems of violent prisoners or sex offenders, for example, and seek ways of altering future behaviour.

Rattray added that these assessments are not educationally based and, as he also agreed that a large percentage of the prison population is essentially illiterate, many of the inmates will not have the necessary skills required to take any type of behavioural management programme since most require at least limited literacy ability.

He did, however, state that all the prisoners undergo a separate educational assessment to determine their literacy levels, and the prison service would continue to depend on volunteers to provide that basic education where needed, which has been the case for sometime. He also explained that there were future plans to introduce a specialist programme which would involve literate prisoners teaching the illiterate ones, but there are no set plans for a full educational literacy programme to be provided by the prison service.

Currently inmates at HMP Northward who want to learn to read receive only twohours per week of instruction from a group of Cayman Islands Reading Aides (CIRA) volunteers. The reading materials, workbooks and the like which the volunteers use are paid for by sponsorship from Rotary, who fundraise throughout the community. Michelle Pentney, CIRA’s prison co-ordinator, said this is an inadequate provision considering the fundamental literacy problems that so many prisoners face. However, she said she hoped to increase the hours on offer shortly.

“Since we have been waiting for the new classrooms to be built, we have had to reduce the weekly provision from four hours per week to just two, which is not enough. However, with the completion of the new building, we should now be able to add at least one other class on Saturday mornings, perhaps even a third,â€Â she said.

The classes depend primarily on the services of volunteers and securing enough tutors from the community to come to the prison can be difficult. One volunteer told CNS that the problem of dealing with prison literacy through a volunteer programme alone is not easy for a number of reasons.

“Not all CIRA volunteers can attend the prison for classes as they currently take place on Wednesday afternoons. It is more difficult to recruit volunteers to help prisoners as it is not as an attractive proposition for volunteers as spending time with what they perceive to be law-abiding members of the community who also need help with literacy,â€Â she said.

“Other problems have more to do with when we are not there. The prisoners don’t really have any other support or encouragement for their literacy studies and they don’t have time allocated to do homework with someone supervising their reading outside of the two hours, so it’s hard for them to progress. All of us who are literate know how easy it is to procrastinate over extra study or work we bring home. Imagine how much more difficult it is for people with learning difficulties in a prison environment. The prisoners need to be helped and encouraged, even when the volunteers are not there.â€Â

While teaching prisoners to read may not be very glamorous, there is endless research available that points very clearly to education being a major tool in the fight against recidivism. At HMP Northward, none of the $53,000 spent on each prisoner is spent on basic literacy education. Considering that roughly four out of every five prisoners cannot read, Cayman’s road to reducing repeat offending still looks decidedly rocky.

Rattray is clearly cognitive of the fact that the prisoners’ needs are extensive and that literacy is among them. But the introduction of a sophisticated system of behavioural programmes may well be undermined if prisoners cannot read and write. In her report, Yorke recommended introducing inmate assessments and sentence planning, but she listed remedial education as the primary component.

 Most experts agree that addressing the causes of offending behaviour with regards to sex and violent offenders is certainly fundamental to the problem of repeat offending and protecting the community. Criminologists in the UK and the US also point out that such programmes must go hand in hand with literacy projects because, if the inmates do not have the skills to learn in the first place, they cannot be expected to get the full benefit of rehabilitation and specialist behavioural programmes.

Rattray did note some significant barriers to learning within the prison system, and justified the plan to utilise inmates in future education programmes rather than official staff.

“Many prisoners find it hard to admit to literacy problems and others have had very bad past educational experiences, which makes them weary of formal education programmes. This is why the idea of training other prisoners to teach the illiterate students will prove more effective, as they are more likely to relate to a fellow inmate,â€Â he said.

Rattray also pointed to a number of successful vocational programmes that have been running at both HMP Fairbanks and Northward. He said the programme was expanded and they would eventually be able to offer nine vocational programmes that would result in technical qualifications certified by the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI).

“We have worked in conjunction with Employment Relations to find out which fields there are labour shortages in and we are creating programmes which will lead to meaningful qualifications that can also lead to genuine employment opportunities,â€Â Rattray said.

He also explained that some prison officers had taken a specialist course to help them teach prisoners how to run their own small business. Some 75 prisoner officers have also been trained to conduct the new risk assessment that is now underway for prisoners serving sentences longer than two years. All of these initiatives are likely to make a significant impact. After all, anything that offers prisoners an opportunity to change their lives is beneficial to the community at large. However, experts note that cognitive or vocational programmes can be of little use if the prisoners can’t read.

Illiteracy is not the only cause of dysfunctional or criminal behaviour but it is the most fundamental and perhaps easier to tackle than the more complex behavioural problems that many prisoners suffer from – which, according to some criminologists, are often rooted in the frustrations associated with functional illiteracy and the humiliation they suffer in society as a result of not being able to read. 

While there are numerous factors involved in the road to criminality, illiteracy is one of the main reasons why so many criminals cannot break their cycle of re-offending. Almost without exception, illiterates feel ashamed, stupid and unwanted. They tend to disengage from society and become involved in drugs and crime. If, however, prisoners can be taught how to read, they can then learn to do anything.

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