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Since becoming involved with HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) I have become very interested and concerned about the number of inmates with literacy and numeracy problems, e.g. dyslexia and other learning difficulties.

Within the population of the United Kingdom around 4% of people are severely dyslexic and a further 6% have mild to moderate dyslexia. However, within the country’s prison population 80% of prisoners have poor writing skills, 50% have reading difficulties and 65% have trouble with numeracy. Half of all prisoners are at or below the level expected of an 11 year old in reading, two-thirds in numeracy and four-fifths in writing.  

This is clearly a problem that will have affected these individuals throughout their life and may provide clues as to why a higher percentage of the population with learning disabilities go to prison compared to the population without such difficulties.

From a young age if an individual with a learning disability is unable to cope with their school’s teaching methods and exams due to their specific learning requirements this can create feelings of isolation within this individual which can cause truancy and also misconduct, even to the point of expulsion from school, which would lead to poor performance and low exam results, if any results received at all. 

“Nearly half of male sentenced prisoners were excluded from school and nearly a third of all prisoners were regular truants whilst at school and more than half of male and more than two-thirds of female adult prisoners have no qualifications at all.” 
Prison Reform Trust (2003/2004) Report on ‘Social Characteristics of Prisoners’.

It is therefore not inconceivable that an individual with a learning disability can leave school being unable to read and write, having no qualifications and little prospect of employment due to even seemingly small details of being unable to fill in an application form or read an article to find a job. In this situation do you think you could support yourself or even a family?

Now it would not be correct to say that people in this situation will automatically turn to crime because the majority of people with learning disabilities do not use crime to support themselves and their families. But still many tens of thousands do and this can become the start of a vicious circle. With possibly no qualifications or employment, low confidence and self-esteem because of this and now also a criminal record the future will not appear to offer many alternatives to these individuals other than those of repeat offending and consequently rising prison populations.

“On 6th April 2004 the prison service hit it’s all-time record of 75,544 prisoners and it is expected to rise. Home Office forecasts are of a prison population of up to 83,500 by 2008.”
Sources from Home Office Statistics Report on ‘Prison Population’.

These rising figures should be of concern for the country, not just because of the crime levels they reflect but also for the financial implications of holding inmates. When the Prison Service met its 2002-03 KPI (key performance indicator) targets, which ensure that the average cost per prisoner does not exceed £36,539, the cost per prisoner was £36,268. (£271 difference!)
Info from Prison reform Trust.

With dyslexia being an hereditary problem, this could be one of the reasons why we get certain individuals and families coming in and out of prison. If a family member has not received help themselves for learning difficulties, then it can be harder for them to help subsequent generations and the cycle of feeling isolated in learning situations is at risk of repeating itself. There is clearly a problem here. So I mentioned this to the Director General of the prison service, Mr. Phil Wheatley, at a HODS (Home Office Disability Support) annual meeting. The response I got from him was quite astonishing, as his attitude seemed intent on laying blame with single parents. I cannot make the connection between individuals with a disability and single parents and unfortunately we did not have long enough together to discuss his comments so I am unable to understand what he may have meant.

This comment aside, I will credit Mr. Wheatley with the fact that there is a slow but growing help in the prison service for prisoners and staff since the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) of 1995 has already been introduced in the first three main stages. The first stage of the DDA is Definition of Disability, Part 2 is Employment Provisions and the Duty of Trade Organisations to their disabled members and applicants, Part 3 is Access to Goods and Services for disabled people and the final stage, which was introduced in October 2004, is Consultation with service providers to ensure physical features do not restrict services to disabled people. 

There is good work going on in the prison service with educational training, work groups within the prison, resettlement advice to prepare prisoners for life in the community after release, and so much more. But what became apparent to me after talking to prisoners with learning difficulties, speaking to them individually and in small groups, is that they have very little confidence and self-esteem and they will not ask for help, because they do not want to be isolated, ridiculed or classed as stupid by the other inmates and some members of staff. It is very similar to the schoolyard mentality of not wishing to appear different from others. They also relate their previous experiences of schooling to the education and training offered in prison and are put off by the thought of a lot of reading and writing. Therefore the majority of inmates with dyslexia do not end up going through education or training, but some do work within the prison because there is little or no reading and writing required so they can keep their learning difficulties hidden from their peers. 

According to the Offenders Learning and Skills Unit in the Department for Education and Skills,
just under a third of the prison population is attending education classes at any one time, half of all prisoners do not have the skills required by 96 per cent of jobs and over 50% were unemployed before imprisonment. 

How can we go about trying to solve this problem? I think firstly we have got to make people aware, most importantly the inmates themselves, that if they have learning difficulties they are not stupid and there is help available to them. It is encouraging to let people know that there are many distinguished people with dyslexia, such as Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill and so many more, I do not think that anyone now would class these people as stupid. 

If we can increase inmates’ self confidence through awareness of their own learning requirements, removing the stigma of ‘stupidity’, and help them understand the value that training can have in broadening the possibilities available to them in “outside” life, we would get a lot more prisoners being willing to enrol for education and training. As soon as an inmate decides they are open to the prospect of learning they have made the first step to enriching their own lives by increasing their knowledge and gaining a new perspective on life. 

Once inmates are enrolled it is very important for those in teaching positions to follow the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act of 2001, which offers guidelines on how to adjust an educational environment for people who have disabilities, and for teachers to understand that people with dyslexia learn with entirely different learning strategies from traditional teaching practices. Approaches such as multi-sensory teaching methods, tactile (sensory-based) and kinesthetic (movement-based) methods and very practical based learning and training can be used so students can learn through their actions rather than just word-based input. Small class sizes help all students as the teacher can devote more time to each person, but some individuals with dyslexia may need one to one tutoring, particularly inmates who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea of educational training, even a different learning environment from the usual classroom setting could improve their ability to learn. Other aspects to be considered include exercise and diet, which should include fatty acids like cod liver oil which helps the memory retain and recall information and improves the ability to concentrate. 

With technology constantly evolving dyslexic people can overcome some of their difficulties with such things as texthelp and speech recognition computer software, reader pens and digital voice recorders. Audio books can introduce spoken literature and even watching television can help literacy with ceefax teletext’s written subtitles that show a written word which corresponds with the word being spoken and helps to reinforce recognition of the patterns of letters that create words.

If the prison service could just get these individuals educated and trained and help them to gain a sense of satisfaction in their personal learning achievements these inmates self-confidence and ambition would have a chance to grow and they may be able to change their lives for the better and for the people around them.  


Written by Mr Levon Lumb (dyslexic) 

Print version: Dyslexia within the Prisons