A day of literacy at Northward Prison

A band churned out a bass-heavy reggae-tinged song, with two male and two female singers harmonizing on the refrain: “Illiteracy/Breaking the chains of illiteracy.”

The music, along with impassioned speeches, inspired poetry and a short, message-heavy drama were all part of the annual Literacy Day celebration that took place Friday, Oct. 27, at Her Majesty’s Prison Northward.

Now in its 10th year, the program tries to address the needs of inmates who struggle with reading, writing and communicating effectively. They represent a large part of the prison population.

Donald Hooker, 42, said the program has been an important element in trying to break his cycle of incarceration. He’s 2½ years into a 3½-year sentence for burglary, but has spent 21 years – half his life – behind bars, largely due to a drug problem.

Mr. Hooker’s short play, performed as part of the daylong celebration, was meant to encourage those needing help with reading to become part of the program. He said he has been writing plays and poetry since he was a kid. It was only during his most recent sentence that he enrolled with the literacy program. He’s also a member of the inmates council.

More importantly, he added, instead of continuing to use drugs while in prison, he said he has been sober for more than two years.

“I took different steps this time because I’m trying to break the cycle,” he said.

The literacy program and Friday’s event help motivate him and his fellow inmates, he said.

“All the inmates couldn’t sleep last night,” he said, adding that they were anxious about performing.

Music is part of the literacy program. Participants are encouraged to communicate through song. Dave Kennedy-Whittaker, 53, is the drummer for the prison band, which practices daily. He’s serving the last five months of a 13-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping. He said the literacy program and the annual celebration are important motivators for him and other inmates.

“We’re all trying to stay out of trouble,” he said, noting that bad behavior would disqualify them from participating. “It brings all the prisoners together. We all try to stay positive.”

Aduke Joseph-Caesar is deputy director of rehabilitation at the prison and created the literacy program.

“I did the first Literacy Day single-handedly,” Ms. Joseph-Caesar said. “We had about 40 inmates and 30 guests. Now we have more than 100, maybe 150.”

At first it was a struggle to attract the inmates who needed the most help, she said.

“No one wants someone to know they can’t read,” she said. “We have about 55 percent [of the prison population] who need basic, basic skills. We have another 20 percent who need tuning up.”

Without basic literacy skills, Ms. Joseph-Caesar said, it is difficult to find even basic employment. She’s seen people come through the program who did not have even basic reading skills, but who went on to earn a General Education Diploma. That gives them a chance once they are released, she said.

“They can integrate [into society] without getting into crime,” she said.

In addition to academic skills, she said the inmates also learn the “soft skills” of communication. From the decorations of balloons and banners, to writing speeches for the presenters, the Literacy Day event is organized by the inmates and they have to work with one another to pull it off.

“It’s all about getting people together and learning to live properly,” Ms. Joseph-Caesar said. “People say these people are so violent. We have all these people here and some are important [invited guests]. We’ve never had a security issue with the event.”

During a short speech to the group, inmate Sheldon Brown, 48, told the group if they attack anything, it should be their books.

“I believe we need to take a more robust and aggressive approach to education,” Mr. Brown said, “if we want to improve our quality of life.”

Mr. Brown, who is serving a 12½-year sentence for attempted murder, has written five books while in prison, the latest of which is about to be published, he said. He was introduced to the Literacy Day attendees as the prison’s star.

“We have to empower ourselves with education,” Mr. Brown told the group. “I can tell you with absolute certainty, no one is irredeemable.”

In an interview, Mr. Brown said that Literacy Day is an important focal point for those living behind the walls and barbed-wire-topped fences of the prison.

“It helps to give the inmates something to look forward to,” Mr. Brown said, “and to exercise their skills, like music. Others, like myself, take it as a time to share [ideas]. And, it’s a fun day besides.”

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