You won’t believe how life repeats itself

Things change, but literacy will always have the same power, writes Eric Allison

life goes in circles, writes Eric Allison

Life has habit of coming full circle, writes Eric Allison. Photograph: Steve Grant.

They say that life goes in circles and the older I get, the more it seems to ring true.

When I ended my last prison sentence, a few days before the millennium, I walked out of Sudbury Prison on the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire .

About half a mile down the road from Sudbury lies Foston Hall, now a women’s prison. But in 1957, it was a Detention centre and the very place where my penal journey began.

Detention centres were meant to impose a short sharp shock on us young miscreants. It didn’t work of course. Over the next four decades, which encompassed several spells in the slammer, I met up with virtually every member of the class of ’57.

Spotting more circles

In 1968 I was starting a four and half year sentence at Strangeways Prison, Manchester. One evening a new lad a few cells down from me handed me a letter from his wife, the first she had sent him. Quietly, so no one else could hear, he told me he could not read or write and that his wife didn’t know this.

I read him the letter, then he asked if I could write a reply, which he would copy and send. It was sad that this grown man, who was articulate in conversation, was in fact illiterate. I was astonished he had kept his handicap from his wife. But I knew he was not alone in his problem.

Many hid their illiteracy though, including George, the lad who had approached me for help.

His wife wrote every week and after the first two, I took him to one side. I told him one of us could be moved to another wing and while he was safe with me, other inmates might have broadcast his problem.

His wife’s letters were personal and meant for him alone. So I offered to teach him basic literacy. He agreed and we got started.

To this day I cannot remember in detail how I taught him. I am not a teacher and had little in the way of conventional schooling. But I was blessed with the ability to read and write well from an early age.

What I do know is, 18 months on from our agreement, George was reading and writing his own letters. I can clearly recall the pride George showed when he penned his first letter. And I remember the satisfaction I felt in helping him achieve literacy.

Writing to Shannon

Fast forward to 2005, when I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the Shannon Trust. The charity was set up in 1997 by a farmer, Christopher Morgan. Morgan had enrolled in a scheme run by the Prison Reform Trust, whereby people wrote to prisoners who had no family and friends. Morgan corresponded with a lifer, Tom Shannon, who painted a raw and vivid picture of life inside.

With Shannon’s permission, Morgan published the letters in a book, Invisible Crying Tree. With the royalties Morgan established the Shannon Trust. The charity runs a literacy scheme, which is now in place in every prison in the system and has taught over ten thousand prisoners to read since it began. It is estimated that almost half of the prison population has a reading age at, or below, that of an 11 year old.

There are many circles at play here. Firstly, prisoners who can read and write teach those who cannot, just as I did with George all those years ago. Then, following the piece I wrote about the trust, Christopher Morgan asked if I would become a trustee of the charity.

I was taken aback at first. Imagine me, a former career criminal, being a trustee of anything. I was reminded of the Groucho Marx joke: he said he would not want to join any club that would have him as a member! But I accepted, with a degree of pride.

Last year I went to Wandsworth prison, where the scheme began, to hear the then prisons minister Jeremy Wright announce that the programme would would become part of the core day in every prison.

One of the prisoner mentors, John, told me the scheme was the most rewarding thing he had ever done in his life. “I get such a buzz when a learner completes a page for the first time, it is just so exciting,” he said.

In those few moments, I was taken from south London to Manchester and the circle of my life turned back almost half a century.

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