On the anniversary of my wrongful conviction the memories of my time on remand stay in my mind. Something which I have been thinking about a lot recently is the fact that while I was held on remand I was able to read through much of the very limited 'disclosed' documentation on my case. If you’re charged with a crime you’ll need to read the charge sheet and indictment, your own statement or transcripts of interviews for signing, all statements against you and forensic reports both for and against your innocence. This material might be quite extensive and require many hours of reading. Forensic and legal documents often contain technical language, which can be difficult to follow without specialist knowledge or a dictionary. I was fortunate enough to be able to do this but for many people charged with criminal offences it’s not an option because they cannot read and write.
In today’s society there’s always help available for people with disabilities such as partial vision or hearing difficulties and similarly if you can’t read or write you should be able to ask for someone to read it to you. The problem is that the vast majority of people charged with crimes who are not literate will not tell anyone about it. This means that the situation arises where many people have no idea of the detailed charges against them and this places greater difficulty on formulating a defence strategy. The bigger issue of course is that some people go through police interviews facing often very serious charges, and end up tried and convicted without really knowing the many factors of how this came about. Imagine not knowing the reasons why you were convicted, maybe wrongly, of serious crimes and imprisoned for even the shortest period or as long as whole life sentence.
This can also have impact on the victims of crime because admission of guilt by the perpetrator often helps victims to understand what happened to their loved one. Many of the accused won't understand the nature of the evidence against them and will not make confessions, where as if they had been able to read they might have done. Confessions also help the prisoner to rehabilitate and work towards better prison conditions and long-term objectives of building a new life on release.
During my time in Full Sutton prison I took a course, which enabled me to be capable of teaching people to read and write. It was called a ‘Peer Support Qualification’, and once achieved allowed me to be a classroom assistant in jail. My role was to help those guys who most others had given up hope on. One of those I helped was a guy with Tourette’s syndrome. He had a lot of involuntary physical ticks and verbal outbursts. He had clearly struggled with every aspect of his life until this point plus his personal hygiene was not the best but I saw through that and we got on okay. I managed to get him to learn the basics and above all to find some confidence in himself, which he had been sadly lacking before. Learning to read and write to a reasonable standard can often only take a few months and makes all the difference to prisoners who need to use cost effective methods to keep in touch with family and friends and read their legal mail.
Why is it that a justice system completely reliant upon written documents to create the case against someone, can proceed with a prosecution even though the defendant cannot read a word of any of the witness statements put before them? It is only in recent times that the government has realised quite a substantial amount of prisoners struggle with being able to read and write. In the last ten years or so every inmate gets tested to see if they can read and write, prior to that it was possible to simply conceal that fact from the prison authorities and everyone else around them. Guys simply had a range of good excuses at the ready for not being able to read. A classic was and is: “I haven’t got my glasses with me”, or: “My glasses are broken.” There is no come back on that.
Some prisoners have learnt where to put numbers or ticks on the forms they have to fill in for their canteen orders or meal choices, so even friends don’t notice. But since the system realised that reading and writing ability was a problem for prisoners, proper testing has been done where there are no excuses for why they can’t do the test. Accordingly the authorities have discovered that between 40% and 60% of prisoners cannot read or write to entry level one, the expected level for children under the age of 11. That is simply shocking and it’s not just that schooling has failed these men, or that prison education might have failed them, it’s that they have been prosecuted and jailed, probably many times and yet they’ve not been able to read the prosecution’s case against them and they could well be imprisoned in the first place because they were unable to gain employment owing to the fact that they can't read and write.
With the huge cuts in legal aid, and prisoners not admitting to their solicitor that they can’t write or read the witness statements, people simply wait until trial and listen to what people say about them in Court and react to that but by then it’s a bit late. Moreover, I’m told that those who serve on a jury are not required to prove that they can read or write well enough to be able to understand legal documents and witness statements either.
My personal experience of those who struggle to read and write is that you’d never know from how they looked or how they spoke or how they conducted themselves. Their conversation is varied and interesting and there really aren’t any outward signs indicating they can’t read and write unless they tell you. But to think that probably 50% of those people who are prosecuted for the most serious crimes cannot read or write to entry level one standard is quite simply scandalous. How can they have had a fair trial? Maybe they received some help but not enough.
Being able to read and write should be one of the basic human rights, every citizen should have. Prisoners should never be prosecuted until they are literate – hold them on remand and teach them how to read and write, and hold the prosecution until they can. It’s simple, some will simply delay but the prison system has ways to encourage compliance and then the country has a chance of another 50% of prosecutions being fair. Alternatives could be providing audio transcripts of all material but this doesn’t solve the long-term problem of illiterate prisoners hoping for rehabilitation and release.