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Driving down illiteracy in our prisons

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Author: Mike Williams, CEO New Zealand Howard League

When the New Zealand Howard League was formed along the lines of a much older British model in 1923, the organisation’s two major objectives were the abolition of the death penalty and the end of corporal punishment in jails.

The latter was achieved in 1938, but this may have had more to do with Hitler using New Zealand’s practice of flogging prisoners as a justification for its reintroduction in Germany by his Nazi Government.

The death penalty was effectively suspended by the First Labour Government, but was restored by the new National Government in 1949. In 1960, ten National MPs, led by Justice Minister Ralph Hanan, voted with the Labour Party to finally abolish the death penalty.

The New Zealand Howard League then became the major organisation advocating for prisoners’ rights in New Zealand, and was strongly associated with its President, the late Sir Peter Williams.

In 2011, retired businessman Tony Gibbs became involved in the League and, with the withdrawal of Sir Peter, Tony asked me to devise strategies to address New Zealand’s shamefully high level of incarceration.

Although I had been involved in politics for many years, I was not particularly aware of penal issues, and I undertook basic research which revealed some alarming facts.

At more than 200 hundred prisoners per 100,000 of population, New Zealand does indeed have a very high rate of imprisonment.

Australia has an incarceration rate 30% lower than ours, and the comparable figures for Germany and Norway are 78 and 70 respectively.

More than half of the prison population identifies as Māori, though Māori make up less than 15% of our population.

Tests of prisoners on entry show that as many as seven out of ten are functionally illiterate.

This means they cannot read or write well enough to comprehend basic texts like the Road Code or tenancy agreements. Illiteracy means that employment is difficult to find and it is, in itself, a driver of offending.

Not surprisingly, 65% of Māori prisoners have a driving offence as at least part of their first jail sentence, and I have again and again met young Māori prisoners who landed in jail by this route, were captured by gangs and doomed to reoffend.

The Howard League therefore adopted programmes aimed at addressing literacy and driver licensing issues.

While there are many illiterate prisoners, there are at any one time many thousands of retired school teachers who possess exactly the skills needed to make a serious attack on the problem.

Because of my former position as president of the Labour Party, I have many media opportunities and I began using these to recruit volunteers willing to offer one-on-one literacy tuition to prisoners seeking to acquire this most basic skill.

Over the five years this initiative has operated, we have recruited and trained close to 600 volunteers and taught hundreds of prisoners to read and write to Road Code level, in nearly every New Zealand jail.

We have recently begun trialling a Te Reo Māori literacy programme, and early reports are very encouraging.

The recent overcrowding and resultant staff shortages in our jails have conspired to limit the growth of this programme but, once these matters are resolved, the League has very many skilled volunteers waiting in the wings and armed with a proven approach.

In 2014, we were asked by Corrections to develop a programme aimed at getting driver licences for chronic driving offenders who were on probation and therefore on a path that often leads to a jail sentence.

The League raised $100,000 to employ an instructor/tutor in the Hawke’s Bay and to pay for the tests, birth certificates and the necessary publications over a one-year period.

This initiative has been an undeniable success and has grown year by year.

In 2017, this programme, with its single full-time staffer, assisted 253 mainly young Māori offenders to get their driver licences. The great majority of these offenders ceased offending and many went on to find employment.

In 2015, the Transport Agency offered an annual $100,000 in funding in recognition of the success of the Hawke’s Bay programme, to enable its continuation.

In 2016, the Corrections Department offered $100,000 for a second programme in West Auckland, and a private donor is funding a third based in Whangarei.

The majority of our successes are young Māori offenders, and we feel certain that we must be choking off a flow of new prisoners into the already overcrowded prison system.

Last year, these programmes achieved more than 500 licences for offenders and we are currently seeking Government support to expand this programme to another ten to 15 centres, where large numbers of driving offenders need assistance.


The League welcomes new members and, obviously, donations. To join or donate, go to



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