There is Mike Williams too. The former Labour party president is now chief executive of the Howard League.
It is these two, together with an army of volunteers and the fulltime services of a retired teacher, who have introduced the league’s literacy programme in prisons around the country. Its success has spawned another programme: one designed to turn potential inmates around before they reach the prison doors.
Williams may have long left his leading role in the Labour Party. But he still has the persuasive oratorial and fundraising skills born of a life in politics.
Days before the Spring Hill ceremony, he seated himself in his favourite cafe to explain his current vocation. He starts by reciting author Neil Gaiman: “How do these people [private prison providers] plan how many cells they will need? Easy: you just find out how many 11 year olds can’t read or write.”
As it happens, the numbers don’t add up well for New Zealand’s prison population. Williams snaps out the stats. “At least 50 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate. What that effectively means is they can’t read the Road Code. And the Road Code is pitched at 10 years.”
Worse still, in New Zealand there is a formidably high incarceration rate and recidivism rate – 30 per cent higher incarceration than Australia; double that of Finland and Germany. When they get out, they often go back.
He gleaned that information after joining the Howard League at his old mate Gibbs’ invitation in 2011. Back then, the league had been seen as “a handful of elderly lawyers who met infrequently and abused Corrections,” says Williams.
That’s basically right.
He spent an Easter weekend Googling “penal reform”. And he did a few arithmetical calculations himself. “I thought ‘let’s say 50 per cent of prisoners are illiterate. At any given time there are between 12,000 and 20,000 retired school teachers’. So what I suggested to Tony was we put two and two together and make five.”
Gibbs deemed the idea great. They took it to the Department of Corrections, who also agreed. Corrections agreed to pay the salary of retired literacy professional Anne Brown, who custombuilt the course.
And they began an experiment at Hawke’s Bay Regional Corrections Facility.
“We were worried that [signing up to the programme] might be seen as an admission that you could not read. Or that you were a cissy. But just about everywhere we do it, there’s a queue,” says Williams.
The key characteristic is it’s one-on-one training. But for Brown, the programme is staffed entirely by volunteers. There’s also a peer-to-peer programme where inmates teach each other.
There’s no set time to complete the programme; inmates qualify when they can fluently read a children’s book onto a CD. Since its introduction in 2012, about 100 men have graduated from the Hawke’s Bay facility. The programme now runs in 15 prisons around the country. (At one of them, former Auckland Heart of the City head Alex Swney - jailed in 2015 for a $4 million fraud - is reaching out to help others on the inside.) Graduation ceremonies such as the one witnessed at Spring Hill are regular events.
They’re doing great work. Literacy doesn’t mean the prisoners won’t reoffend, but it means they now have better options ahead of them.
Now the league wants to keep men and women them out of prison in the first place. So let’s hear some more stats first. Williams gleaned these from former Labour MP, now Waipareira Trust head, John Tamihere. “I banged into him in Hammer Hardware in Te Atatu. He told me about 65 per cent of Maori who are in prison start their penal career with a driving offence.
“It’s not just literacy,” continues Williams, “they don’t have a legal car, they don’t know how to get a birth certificate, they don’t have a bank account. And if they go to jail they’ll get recruited into a gang and learn how to cook P.”
So another programme began, again under the jurisdiction of the Howard League. This one identifies second-time offenders who have clocked up two offences related to not having a drivers licence and are on probation. Next step, prison beckons - unless they mend their ways.
The programme teaches probationees the rudiments of reading, together with the intricacies of obtaining a licence.
Even better if you keep them out of prison in the first place.