The Sketch: His lordship stands firm with pronouncements on his porridge that are all a bit much to swallow

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The Independent Online

The problems that criminals face when rehabilitating themselves vary widely. Your middle-aged murderer with a PhD faces a very different set of circumstances on the out than a paroled teenage heroin addict - and neither will quite understand what it is to be a disgraced peer of the realm who has paid his debt to society and is even now brandishing his receipt in front of the television cameras.

But all must look for a place, a niche, a perch, and it can't be easy for Jeffrey, not with the cameras, reporters, sketch writers, cynics and satirists dogging his footsteps every time he turns up to give a keynote speech for a penal reform league. Two years in prison is no small event in a man's life; in a very rich man's life the change of circumstances must be the more dramatic. With Jeffrey's royalties in the bank, the fall to earning £12 a week must have been unintelligible.

We must all resist any temptation to be unkind, but it certainly seems to have been unintelligible to Britain's most famous life peer. If what he learnt over two years in prison was what he told us yesterday we can deduce that the essential tool of survival is a skin so thick that nothing can penetrate you.

None the less, his speech to the Howard League for Penal Reform went off pretty well; they seemed very pleased to have a celeb to draw the media, and the media seemed pleased enough to be drawn. We all wanted him to comment on the status of his peerage, of course, so he gave us 10 emphatic minutes on three inadequacies in the prison system, and about the same on his own inadequacies, which were more numerous.

From the former category he said: "I do not consider our legal and prison system either unjust or punitive." That sounds like a triumph of theory over practice for someone who experienced 23 hours a day in an overcrowded cell in one of Britain's most horrible prisons.

In tones of thumping common sense he reminded us that 90 per cent of inmates don't take up the opportunity of further education, and this was despite the fact that six out of 10 prisoners were functionally illiterate. The reason, he said, was because prisoners who studied were paid at half the rate of those who did manual work.

He offered two solutions. The first, to pay those taking up education the same wage as for any other prison job. And the second: to put illiterate prisoners on to an intensive 12-week reading and writing course and not allow them parole until they had passed it.

You'll have to make up your own jokes from these rich but raw materials, but I don't think Jonathan Aitken would have passed Jeffrey Archer's writing course, and nor would Jeffrey have passed Jonathan's.

Charles Cowling teaches literacy at a south coast prison and is not tempted to make jokes about the proposal. "People are put in prison for committing crimes. It is not a crime to be illiterate and it should never be a reason for holding people in prison any longer than they are now ...Archer's proposal just completely misses the whole point about the causes of crime." It's not about literacy, it's about drugs, Cowling feels, and comparing the two sets of experience expressed yesterday - Cowling's and Archer's - I can't but feel that Cowling has derived more from his time inside than Jeff.

Question time lacked something, we felt. In an unusual regime, the questions had been submitted in writing and selected ones were read out by the chairman. When the television tried to inject a little spontaneity into the event by asking a trenchant question about the security of Jeffrey's peerage it was ignored. We all have different ways of processing shame.