The Hobart

Inmate Literacy in Tassie Prisons Leads to Better Connections

by Stephanie Williams
Inmate Literacy in Tassie Prisons Leads to Better Connections

Tasmania has the lowest literacy rate in Australia, which presents a range of social issues. Emma Sells is an accountant in Hobart and volunteers with Connect 42, an organisation helping to increase literacy levels among Tasmania’s prison population and disadvantaged communities. She’s the treasurer on the board, as well as an active volunteer in our prisons.

What is Connect 42 and what are your goals? Connect 42 is a literacy charity and we work on building connection through communication. Our aim is improving literacy. We’ve got this situ­ation in Tasmania of having the lowest levels of literacy in the country. We know only 48 percent of Tasmanians have functional literacy, at a 12 year old level. We had a symposium in 2018 and out of that came a goal of 100 percent literacy. One hundred percent literacy doesn’t mean that everybody can read and write because that’s probably not possible. But it means everybody is as literate as they can be. We’re building and growing, running programs in the prison and through child-parent attachment.

What are the programs? The program with the inmates is called Just Time. We’ve been doing that for a number of years, and we have been promised funding for the next three years in the recent election campaign. Last year we received funding for the next step, Just Moving On, which is working with the prisoners and their children outside the prison. That’s the ultimate goal because that’s how we’re going to see intergen­erational change. We’re working with Bethlehem House and running a program on teaching homeless and disadvantaged men how to read and that’s been really successful. Then we’re also working with the education department. There are two streams – we’re dealing with people who are already suffering the effects of not having appropriate literacy and communi­cation skills and then we’re working with the education department in trying to stop that stuff before it starts.

How did Connect 42 start? Rosalie Martin, a speech pathologist, founded Connect 42, originally as Chatter Matters. She contacted the prison offering to run a literacy program. And they said yes. She ran the first one and it was very successful and grew from there. She was doing reading programs with men in the prison, two of whom were really severely low in literacy, and within about three to four months they had attained quite good literacy. The prison was stunned by that. This was an opportunity. Rosie won the Tasmanian Australian of the Year Award in 2017, based on that work at the prison.

How do low literacy levels play out in the community? Literacy is very much based on communication – particularly parents communicating with children, because that’s where it starts. If people can’t speak out, they act out. If you don’t have literacy, it can be frustrating. A lot of people who have low literacy levels feel as if they’re dumb. And they’re not. It’s an unconscious learning. Most of us learn to read and write without any pain whatsoever. It was just something we did, some slower than others, but we did it. We don’t realise how lucky we were, because for those who don’t have that, it can be seven years of hell going through school. It’s setting you up for a lifetime of hell because you feel like you’re not good enough. It’s not just a practical thing. It’s an emotional thing. Then you’re more likely to be led down the path of criminality or to have low employment opportunities, which means it lowers your income. The other thing, and this is a bit sad, is sometimes people who are illiterate don’t want their children to be smarter than them.

Why does it matter to you? How did you become involved? I’m an absolutely avid reader. I’m passionate about it because accountants aren’t probably known for being the best communicators! I pride myself on being a good communi­cator. I grew up in the country and have worked mainly in regional areas where, once upon a time, people who had low literacy still had pathways. They could work. I’m sure I’ve worked with people who had very low literacy in the past, in particular in farming and rural. Nowadays with technology and with the workplace health and safety requirements, they can’t hide. This is a really sad thing because we’ve actually got this real skill set – I mean, ask them to build something and they can build it for you in a moment, or grow something and they can grow it. These people would take home the forms and get someone else to fill it out and then bring it back. And now you go sit down on the computer and do it now.

I volunteered at the women’s prison because that’s what I am also very pas­sionate about – supporting women. I mean greater than 50 percent of accountants are women but 17 percent of partners, business owners and C-suite are women. You don’t feel like you’re threatened by it when you’re at the prison. I didn’t feel like I was in a room full of hardened criminals – I felt like I was in a room full of people who’ve been the victims of choices of others, and their own choices. And it can happen to any of us.

What can parents and carers do to help their own children’s literacy? Working with the children and the schools and also advocating for getting more assistance in the schools. Because we can’t just go, ‘this is a teacher’s problem’, because it’s not. It takes a village to raise a child, that is so true, and it takes a lot to teach as well. This is a no-brainer and the public health benefit to increasing literacy is huge. You don’t need nearly as many prisons.

How can readers help Connect 42? We’re currently running a Just 42 fund­raising campaign to encourage people to donate $42 a month, on a regular basis. If you can’t afford $42, just $4,20, or $10 makes a difference. It’s not the size that matters. Find out more at www. connect42.org

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July 2022

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