Mike Williams, New Zealand Howard League

If you couldn’t read or write, how hard would it be to get a job? How hard would it be to get a driver’s licence?

“Next to impossible,” Mike Williams says. As CEO of the New Zealand Howard League, Mike knows a lot about the ripple effects of illiteracy.

Originally established in Britain in 1866, The Howard League was created to advocate for penal reform. The league has been operating in New Zealand since 1923 and was instrumental in abolishing the death penalty and corporal punishment in our prisons.

But it was not until 2011, when Mike Williams was appointed as CEO, that the issue of illiteracy among New Zealand’s prison population came to the fore.

“On their arrival at prison, corrections officers test all prisoners; 73% could not pass NCEA Level 1. They’re basically illiterate,” Mike says. “This means they wouldn’t be able to understand a tenancy agreement. They can’t get a driver’s licence. And that has a knock-on: If you can’t get a licence, which is essentially the sole means of identification accepted in New Zealand aside from a passport, and very few of these guys have got passports, you can’t open a bank account. If you haven’t got a bank account, you’re in the cash economy and the cash economy is a criminal economy.”

They realised that literacy was a key tool in the battle against reoffending, so in 2012 the Howard League Literacy programme began in the Hawke’s Bay. Mike connected the dots between prisoners in need and retired school teachers who were keen to volunteer.

“The first graduate of the programme was tutored by a retired local teacher, Anne. He’d lost count of his prison sentences – it was either 11 or 13 – and they were all for driving without a licence. He had a family and a roofing job to go back to – he wasn’t so silly that he couldn’t learn. Anne taught him how to read and write over 12 weeks. He got his licence and he never went back to prison.

“Slowly but surely we’ve been introducing the programme into jails and we’re now running in every jail in the country except Invercargill.

“Initially it was difficult,” Mike says. “Nobody wanted to admit that they couldn’t read or write. A lot of prisoners don’t actually think it’s a problem. Plus there’s a lot of shame involved.

“So I stood up in front of a group of prisoners and said ‘hands up if you’d like to improve your ability to read to your kids.’ A forest of hands went up. You can be the biggest scumbag in the world, but you still want to be a good daddy.”

When it comes to tutors, there is no shortage of volunteers. “We have more than 500 volunteers for the prison literacy programme,” Mike says. “It’s a great experience for them. When they finish a course, nine out of ten tutors want to do another one because it’s been so rewarding.”

And it’s rewarding for the prisoners too. “The prisoners know one thing about our tutors: they’re not getting paid. Very often, its the first time in their lives that someone has taken an interest in them.”

With the growing success of the literacy programme, the Howard League turned its attention to the issue of driver licensing as a way of tackling the problem of New Zealand’s overburdened prisons.

“Some of the tougher judges will jail someone for a third offence for unlicensed driving. So our programme works with second-offender unlicensed drivers. The main issues are lack of money and lack of birth certificates, or not knowing how to get a birth certificate. Some of them may need professional driver training, which they couldn’t afford either. So we said, ‘OK, we’ll pay for that’.

“Like the literacy programme in the jails, a bit of attention goes a long way,” Mike says. “If you get people off that pathway to jail, you’re also directing them towards employment.”

Mike would like to see the government adopt the driver licensing programme.

“We think the model of one-on-one tuition and a bit of money to pay for it could potentially save hundreds, maybe thousands of people from a prison sentence.
A prisoner is the most expensive beneficiary you’ve got. It costs over $100,000 per year to keep someone in jail. We spent $100,000 last year to get 195 licences. If we kept just one person out of jail for one year, we’re in profit. And you can absolutely guarantee that within that 195 there were more than a couple.”

General Manager of AA Motoring Affairs, Mike Noon, agrees getting a driver’s licence is a positive game changer for prisoners.

“Getting a driver’s licence can be a decisive step towards people escaping a life of crime and finding work. The efforts of Mike Williams and the Howard League are helping people break the cycle and we also want to acknowledge the NZ Transport Agency’s collaboration in the programme as a way of helping improve behaviour on the road.”

Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue

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