Margaret had never told anybody that she couldn’t read or write. However, the need to complete courses as part of her sentence plan made her realise that she needed to get some help to improve her literacy skills.
I must have been about 6 years old when I started school but I’d left by the time I was 9. I thought it was boring, a waste of time plus I had no friends to play with – as a traveller girl, I found it difficult to make friends outside my own community.
As I only mixed with others from the traveller community, I was brought up learning to fight, drink and bate non-travellers. I started getting into trouble from quite an early age (usually because I was drunk) but only really got a ‘slap on the wrist’ from the local copper but as the fights and drinking escalated so did the punishments. I got a couple of short prison sentences before receiving an IPP sentence (an indeterminate sentence for public protection) in 2006 after being convicted of arson when I accidently set a fence alight.
Not being able to read or write had never really been a problem for me. I’d never told anybody but I just learnt ways of getting by. However, the IPP sentence started to cause me some real problems – I couldn’t complete my menu or canteen sheet but more importantly, I wasn’t able to do the courses that were part of my sentence plan. I could bluff my way through the menu and canteen sheet even though I sometimes ended up eating roast chicken, gravy and salad. But when faced with the probation courses, my aggression just covered up the fact that I couldn’t read.
I was really lucky to have a great Personal Officer who realised that my aggression and bad behaviour was masking something else (I don’t know how) and that if I carried on the way I was going, I was likely to spend years and years in prison. He was the first person I told about my problems with reading and he encouraged me to sign up for the Toe-by-Toe programme run in the prison to help prisoners overcome their reading problems.
I was a bit apprehensive to start with but was put in touch with a really friendly mentor who I met up with on most days. I started to learn how to change letters or words into sounds and in a really short space of time, I was reading ‘easy-reader’ books accurately and confidently. I started to look forward to going to the library each week to pick out a new book.
Admitting that I couldn’t read or write very well meant that I got extra help with my courses and, by the time I sat my Parole Board I’d done everything that was expected of me.
When I left prison I knew I was never going back and although I’m proud of my traveller roots, I wanted to do something different, be somebody different. I found a course at my local college that didn’t have any formal entry requirements and I went along to sign up as a mature student. When the receptionist looked at the blank space under the section which asked about “educational history” she told me that the course would be ‘intensive and advanced’. When I told her that I wasn’t stupid I’d just never been to school, she looked totally horrified.
I loved every minute of my college course but knew that finding a job with my criminal record was going to be the next battle I’d have to overcome. How many companies would want to employ somebody with convictions for violence and arson? Having come so far though, there was no way I was going to give up easily.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do (I’d never actually had a job before prison) but my probation officer suggested that I try doing some voluntary work just to get me used to the routine of working. I searched for opportunities online and before long I came across an organisation that campaigns for the advancement of education among the children of travellers. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
When I heard that I’d been invited to attend an interview, I almost ‘bottled it’ but deep down I knew that I’d never get another opportunity like it. I was shaking when I went into the manager’s office but she immediately put me at ease. I explained about my conviction and how, since I’d stopped drinking and gone to college, I’d put my offending behaviour well and truly behind me. At the end of the interview, I knew it was an organisation I wanted to be part of and I was delighted to be told that as a result of my own experiences and the fact that I’d been so honest and upfront, they wanted me as a volunteer.
I find it sad that I’ve only been able to change my life because I went to prison but, there’s no point living in the past – I’m just looking forward to my future.
By Margaret (name changed to protect identity)