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Home arrow Law arrow The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change


A 2008 Prison Reform Trust study found that 48 % of prisoners had a reading level at or below Level 1 (equivalent to a reading age of 14-15), and 65 % had a numeracy level at or below Level 1. Additionally, 67 % of all prisoners reported being unemployed at the time of imprisonment (Clark & Dugdale, 2008). There is no shortage of research that highlights the need for educational interventions in prison. Indeed, a broad body of research suggests that educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison (King, 2010; Kim & Clark, 2013).

Toe-by-Toe is the leading programme addressing literacy tutoring in prisons and began in 2000 at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) in Wandsworth. Whilst this programme only operates in England and not all parts of the UK, it is regulated by the Shannon Trust, a UK-wide charity. The charity’s vision is to help prisoners to better engage in their rehabilitation journeys by helping them to read. Once the Shannon Trust has helped to establish a Toe-by-Toe programme within a prison, prisoners run the programme, supervised and facilitated (in terms of resources, allocation of rooms, and so on) by prison staff via monthly meetings. The foundation of the programme lies in a “buddy system” through which older, fluent readers adopt mentor roles and coach lesser able students through a reading programme.

In prisons, the Shannon Trust trains volunteer prisoners on a needs basis and equips them with the materials (principally a Toe-by-Toe manual) required to carry out the role. Trained mentors are allocated a small number of mentees, whom they meet with for hourly sessions each week. During these sessions, mentees receive support to develop basic literacy skills, in a journey that aims to enhance the self-esteem of both the mentee and mentor (Trust, 2005). To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, there is currently no research on the Toe-by-Toe programme. Furthermore, there is limited information concerning the scale of these programmes across English prisons. Nevertheless, the Shannon Trust website reports that in 2005, Toe-by-Toe covered 95 % of English prisons, with 80 % of the programmes in place considered active. The website also reports that at this time, 954 active mentors were working with mentees across English prisons.

RAPt Mentors

RAPt (Rehabilitation of Addicted Persons Trust) provides a range of services in prisons across England and Wales (it does not currently run throughout other parts of the UK) but is particularly well known for its drug and alcohol treatment programmes. The RAPt Substance Dependence Treatment Program (SDTP) is a rolling, abstinence-based treatment programme lasting between 16 and 22 weeks. This programme is based on the Twelve Steps principles of AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and has been adjusted specifically for prisoners and offending populations. RAPt trains recovered prisoners (those who have completed the Twelve Steps programme) to serve as mentors. These mentors provide support to recovering prisoners through advice, guidance, and effective modelling of pro-social recovery attitudes and behaviours.

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