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Colin Scullion, a literacies link worker for liberated prisoners in Glasgow, speaks to PN in a personal capacity about Scottish prisons and the importance of literacies for social justice.

Reading the world

SY What do you do?
CS I meet up with prisoners who have literacies issues and discuss how improving their literacy levels can open up opportunities for them.

SY But what is the importance of literacies education for offenders?
CS It can help prisoners understand why they are where they are. Generally a lot of it is not their own fault. A lot of them have suffered an educational system that has probably failed them and they have internalised that failure. They have blamed themselves and feel as if they are stupid and cannot contribute to anything meaningfully in society.
I find it’s fundamental for a prisoner to be able to express themselves and I think that can come through improved literacies. Some of the things that prisoners have told me about why they are in prison, I think that a lot of it is to do with, and is linked with, a frustration of not being able to express themselves which is linked undoubtedly to low educational achievement and low literacies levels as well.

SY What are the problems that you encounter?
CS Looking at it from a prisoner’s point of view, I think that some of the difficulties are the low self-esteem and motivational levels of prisoners, and once they get out, the poverty that many suffer once they go back to their communities, which are generally areas of social deprivation. And that feeds through into how prisoners respond to the opportunities that I lay before them. They can generally be negative and it’s outwith their control, as when they go back into the same social network that they came from they generally get sucked back into the same sort of circles that they were involved in that probably led to their arrest in the first place.
Some of the people that I have worked with – their aspirations are very, very, very low to the point where they are stunted. I can ask people what sort of things they like doing and it is difficult to get a positive answer because they just don’t have that imagination. It has been taken from them, as far as I am concerned, by neglect. Government neglect.

SY What’s wrong with the system?
CS Well the prison system as far as I can see – this might sound a bit cynical – is reliant on re-offenders to keep it turning over. I think within the prisons themselves, the institutionalisation of prisoners and staff, the treatment meted out to prisoners, is on a level in some cases with something you would expect in Guantanamo Bay where prisoners are fed frozen meals and treated appallingly, sometimes refused basic medication like aspirins or paracetamol. I hear about plenty of incidents from the prisoners I work with about the food and the conditions.

SY Do you think there’s a role for prisons?
CS I think there is probably a role for some people who have committed horrendous crimes; I think prison in some instances is the least bad option. But I’d like to think that if society moved forward and there were more resources for people to use for themselves and not dominated by a few multinationals around the world then I think that we could eventually do away with prisons and we could deal with it in a sort of a community-based way. Anyone who was even doing something that was sort of anti-social, their peers would pull them together, pull them back in. But unfortunately we live in a worsening situation.

SY How do you see literacies education in the context of social justice.
CS I was speaking to a chap this morning. I said “I’m from the adult literacies project” and he said “no, no that’s not for me; I’m illiterate,” so that in itself is an indication of how much that guy needs the project! I think it is about using some of Paulo Freire’s ideas about power, and about turning around the internalisation of the negative aspects of the education system that has failed them: saying “you’re not the failure, it is the system that failed you because they didn’t address issues that required addressing at the time.” We are only really scratching the surface of literacies within the prison service. We have to look at options that place the prisoner at the centre of the learning and not with some bean counter at the end of the financial year who’s looking at figures.

SY You say you’re informed by the theories of Freire and also Gramsci, can you explain any more about this?
CS You are not going to sit and discuss Gramsci and ideology with a prisoner, but you can certainly talk about different things and it makes people think about their own personal circumstances, and once they do that, well that’s what Freire was all about. It was about people not only reading the word, but reading the world; understand why you are and where you are and I think that’s fundamental in any sort of literacy program.

SY What are the difficulties of working within the system?
CS Part of my work is to build up a network of support for liberated prisoners and I tend to build up networks with people who have similar viewpoints to myself. You can actually use the system if you can find people within the system that you can work with and you can get results from that. I think you still have to work on the inside of the system but work smarter. You have to be smarter in the way that you do it and you have to nail your colours to the mast. I’m for keeping both options open, staying within the system and making sure that there’s loads of other different organisations out there so that we can tap in. Cos we need all these different groups, with different sort of ideas and discussions. I wouldn’t say that one way is correct.