Teaching dyslexic prisoners to fight crime

An imaginative new scheme to identify and treat those with reading difficulties in prison is already showing remarkable results, reports Seth Linder
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The Independent Online
For 12 years, Andrew, a heroin-user now in his thirties, was in and out of prison for drug-related offences. Desperate to break the cycle, he tried to enrol for a literacy course. He was lucky - a perceptive tutor suspected he was dyslexic. Four years later, having received specialist tuition, Andrew is now a drugs counsellor and a part-time university student.

Andrew is not alone. Recent research in the US found that 52 per cent of a sample of prisoners were dyslexic, findings that have been mirrored in other countries. Now a pilot scheme initiated last year in five inner London boroughs has revealed similar results. The implications for our overcrowded prisons, indeed for our judicial system as a whole, are immense.

Dyslexia is an umbrella term covering severe difficulties with reading and writing, and poor short-term memory and organising skills. Once dismissed as a middle-class excuse for under-achievement, it is now recognised as a disability by the Department for Education and Employment. Some 10 per cent of the British population are thought to be dyslexic. Why is the figure so much higher for offenders?

Alienation from an early age is a major reason, according to Wally Morgan, a Hackney probation officer and one of the originators of the Dyspel Project, a pilot scheme to identify and assist dyslexic offenders. Morgan, whose dissertation on Dyslexia and Offending recently earned him an MA at the University of North London, has identified comparable childhood experiences in many of the previously unidentified dyslexic offenders he has questioned.

"Initially stable and happy, a dyslexic pupil will fall behind with reading and writing, be labelled stupid or lazy, and feel rejected by his teachers. He becomes the class clown to compensate and eventually becomes too disruptive for the teacher, who has him moved to a remedial class or an inappropriate special school. At 14, reading Janet and John, he's bored out of his mind and lacks stimulation, so he bunks off. But that's boring, too, because everybody else is at school. When someone dares him to break a window or steal a Mars bar, the police become involved, and his future is set in stone."

Illiterate, unable to cope with simple but crucial tasks such as filling in job application forms, and burdened with low self-esteem, the result for the unidentified dyslexic, Morgan believes, is often a downward spiral into a life of crime. Yet dyslexics are often brighter than average and it was this disparity between the offenders' apparent innate intelligence and their low level of achievement ("they can steal and sell at a profit and trick the police, but can't read or write") which prompted Morgan and other probation officers in the Inner London Probation Service to consider the problem. Their answer, in collaboration with the London Language and Literacy Unit and the London Action Trust, was the Dyspel Scheme.

Under this scheme, probation officers screen the offenders they interview for pre-sentence reports using a questionnaire devised by Morgan. If the offender is recommended as suitable, and a probation order is granted, he is then assessed and offered one-to-one tuition from specially trained tutors.

Early results, according to an interim report on the scheme, are remarkable. Over half the 150 offenders initially screened were thought to be dyslexic, of whom 25 joined the year-long scheme. None have reoffended, all remain on the (voluntary) course and more than half have gone on to higher education - previously an inconceivable ambition. But for Morgan and his colleagues, the most moving moment is when an offender discovers the reason for his learning difficulties. "I've seen tough, macho men in their forties, armed robbers, drug users, shoplifters, burst into tears of relief. 'All my life I've been told I'm thick, lazy, ignorant, and I've known I'm not', is a typical response. This is the first step in recovery from this kind of life."

Morgan has also screened residents at a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Hackney, where he found an astonishing 91 per cent to be dyslexic. The resulting feeling of inadequacy and rejection is, he feels, the underlying cause of their addictions.

Plans are under way to use the scheme in all inner London boroughs. The pounds 80,000 needed is being largely sought from charities. Wally Morgan has no doubts about the wider implications: "If we can give dyslexia a much higher profile, if judges and lawyers, prison officers and teachers can acquire a better understanding of it, if people would realise dyslexia is not an excuse but a reason, we would quickly see a significant reduction in offending ... The resources we need are negligible compared to spending pounds 25,000 per year keeping someone in prison who really need not be there."