The induction happened a few weeks before my first day at work, an induction like so many other jobs; a room of screens, an internal database with a series of multiple choice questions. The questions included the standard ones that any work place would have; about protocols and standards and what to expect, but also many unique to this new place of employment, Risdon Prison, where I was to work on a grant project for LINC Tasmania, the library, and their dedicated literacy service.
I have been contracted by LINC Tasmania as a Writer in Residence at Risdon Prison, through their far reaching literacy program. Literacy is one of the most significant and important issues affecting Tasmania right now. In Tasmania, half of us struggle to read and write. A report by the ABS for 2011-2012 shows that 49% (aged between 15-74) are functionally illiterate. This means that half of the people who live with on this island do not have some of the most practical skills to get by in the modern world. These are things like filling out forms or reading straightforward instructions.
Literacy, in terms of readin’ and writin’ is one thing, social literacy, the ability to ‘read’ a situation and to ‘write’ a response is another. In prison it is worse. Inside the prison the 49% functional illiteracy increases to approximately 80% with low skill levels in one or more domains of literacy – reading, writing or numeracy. There are myriad reasons for this; including intergenerational illiteracy, less access to educational resources, contempt for education from those the system has failed in the past and the seemingly entrenched and often ignored class system in Tasmania.
The Writer in Residence role in this iteration was a blank canvas. In my public life speak long and loudly (not long enough, not loudly enough) about the need for all of us to have the tools to tell our stories, and how, whether through spoken or written literacy we can grow a sense of self and of community. More often than not I am speaking to a literate audience. This role affords the opportunity to work specifically with those who struggle with literacy and to hopefully let some light pour in to a world of reading and writing, and to celebrate literature and the written word. The program would also need clear outcomes, and a tangible improvement in the ability and confidence of inmates to read and write. Where to begin!?