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A literacy programme designed specifically for prisoner adult learners has resumed in St. Vincent’s two prisons after restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and volcanic eruption interrupted the initial project.

In 2020-21, 35 prisoners were involved the literacy programme and a library space was refurbished at H.M. Prisons Kingstown.

The project is implemented by local NGO Hand2Earth, whose Project Coordinator Vonnie Roudette became increasingly aware of prisoners’ literacy challenges after teaching vetiver craft and art classes to prisoners in 2015.

In response, Roudette started an inmate-driven literacy class, sponsored by the craft programme before seeking assistance to expand prisoners’ access to basic literacy education.

In late 2018, Roudette teamed up with literacy education specialist, Lynden Punnett, who identified a mentorship reading programme for prisoners developed in the UK by The Shannon Trust.

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6 of 11 mentors who received training in 2020
Six of 11 mentors who received training in 2020.

The “New Leaf Literacy Project” was then designed for St. Vincent and approved for funding by the Maria Holder Memorial Trust in 2019.

Punnett, who Roudette describes as “the driving force” behind the literacy training, tutored 11 prisoners in 2020 as mentors in the reading scheme and is currently teaching a second cohort of seven in Belle Isle Correctional Facility.

The training guides prisoner mentors through five teaching manuals and takes three months to train each cohort.

Mentors improve their own literacy levels and are then supported to teach on a daily basis with learners from the prison population. It takes a learner approximately eight months to work through all stages from beginner to functional literacy level.

The project’s target is total of 22 mentors and to have 25% of the prison population involved in the programme (as mentors/librarians or learners) by end 2024.

Literacy Expert Lynden Punnett during a mentor training session with prisoners at Belle Isle Correctional Facility
Literacy expert Lynden Punnett during a mentor training session with prisoners at Belle Isle Correctional Facility.

Many learners express the wish to be able to read to their children as an incentive for taking up the opportunity.

“New Leaf Project Mentors express great satisfaction in assisting their peers to leave prison with an ability to read well, improving their self- esteem, work prospects and family life,” a press release said.

“These programmes are designed to develop life skills that have proven to reduce recidivism (reoffending)” Roudette said.

“Our handcraft and sustainable farming programs are built on team work, mentorship, collaboration, training of trainers, improving communication skills and the New Leaf Literacy project is no exception.”

In addition to establishing the library in H.M.P. Kingstown, the project is setting up seven reading/study rooms on cell blocks in the Belle Isle facility so that learning activities can continue despite staff shortages.

The project has supplied blackboards, furniture, light fittings, shelving, books and other visual reading aids for the reading rooms.

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Acting Superintendent of Prisons Dwayne Bailey supports the mentorship programme explaining that it can help with challenges of staff shortages in the prison, whilst also keeping prisoners productively occupied, both of which positively impact security in the prison.

Roudette expressed her gratitude to The Maria Holder Memorial Trust for their continuing support.

“Literacy opens the door to interests and opportunities leading a person onto an alternative life path. We have seen the transformational effects of these programs that assign responsibilities to prisoners, improve their self-esteem and significantly reduce the tendency to reoffend.”