It might have been a waste of time. You arrive early at the prison. You’re not on the list so you don’t exist. You are not given an explanation. The young woman behind the glass tells you to wait in the search area. Ten minutes go by. An interpreter joins you on the bench, and you swap stories of long waits in prisons, and treatment by staff. More time goes by. You can hear the chatter of families queuing to see their loved ones. “I’ve told him. Don’t think I haven’t told him.”
Another ten minutes go by. You are now late. The young woman who was behind the glass enters the search area and again asks to see your ID. You have become a person again. Freshly searched, you are ushered through to where the tutors are waiting.

Snow flurries twirl around you as you walk. You would like to walk quicker because of the cold and your thin jacket, but nobody moves fast in prison. You chat with the tutors, get an idea of their mood, their approach to the students. Neither seems worn down by the prison regime. Both are enthusiastic about what their students can achieve. Their present students are mainly Old Soviet Bloc: Poles, and Romanians, though there is one Vietnamese guy in the less able class. You want to see both classes. In one they can easily cope with a Quick Read. ‘They really liked Dead Simple”. You are glad to hear that. With that level of language reading for pleasure becomes much more obvious. There is a shared language of comparison, and investigation, plotlines and empathy.

In the other class, the one with the Vietnamese guy, the level of English is much more basic. Some have only a few words. The teacher is a little worried about the Vietnamese guy. He will be cross. He didn’t get off the wing yesterday. She waves a sheet of paper. He was on the list but the officers used the list from the day before. Paper. You know the power of paper in a prison. Everything is on paper. That’s why you were not on the list at the gate. Someone had mislaid your Intent to Visit, or not written one. You waited twenty minutes and someone came and fetched you. That wouldn’t happen on the wing.

You place your bag of books on the table. The students have still not arrived. No movement. They’re late but that’s not unusual. The teacher shows you some photo prompts that she’d prepared for encouraging writing and speaking. “They didn’t like them,” she explains. They look fine to you. You plan to get the group to choose which of the books you’ve brought they feel comfortable with. A simple exercise but it means they have to get involved, make choices, show they can understand what the book is likely to be about.

The students are now 45 minutes late. This could be a wasted trip. You will have to drive for two hours after. Probably through snow. The teachers in the education block have no radios so have no idea what might be going on in the rest of the prison, what might be delaying or preventing students coming to the class. You look out of the window. Nobody is moving across the yard. Another teacher volunteers to find an officer and see what is going on. The teachers are embarrassed. “You’ve come all this way.”
You tell them of the hours you have spent waiting in various prisons. When a count falls short. The inability to know exactly when a lesson with start and end, because in prison the regime dictates time, not the clock.

The teacher returns. They’re on the way. You will have one hour. You decide to stay with the lower level group before moving to the more able group. It will be useful to compare the two classes’ choices. The Vietnamese guy arrives. He is cross that he wasn’t allowed to education yesterday. Students file past on the way to the other class but nobody else enters yours. The tutor gives the Vietnamese guy a worksheet while we wait. Five minutes go by.

You move across to the Vietnamese guy. He is filling in upper and lower case letters, and numbering the letters of the alphabet A is 1, B is 2 etc. You introduce yourself.
“Thanh.” (Not his real name)
You shake hands. None of your prepared exercises are for single students. You decide to try out one of the simplest books, check what words Thanh recognises and work with that. His spoken English is heavily accented but he seems to have enough for short comments and sentences. You will work with him for twenty minutes, and then move on to the more able group.
Thanh smiles at the book. The book is about skyscrapers (David Orme). Information given in short sentences, or just single words. The book starts with the pyramids and Thanh wants to show me his understanding of the numbers given. We turn to the modern skyscrapers and you try to guess where they are.

“I know this,’ he points. ‘Tokyo.”
“You’ve been there?”
He nods. Points to himself.
“To the top?” You point to the picture.
Thanh nods again.
“Did you use the lift?”
The word doesn’t mean anything to him. Your miming doesn’t help. Luckily the book has a picture and he understands, nods.
“Yes, lift.” He points upwards.
You smile. Thanh smiles. You have connected. You have managed to convey something to each other. You both smile again at this success.

Now it is different. Charged. He wants to read everything on each page. Hurls himself at the words. Not to show you what a good student he is, but because he really wants to learn English.

You finish Skyscrapers and move to Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van (Cath Jones). Again, it is simple but it is a story, a narrative, rather than plucking out individual words.


Thanh has no problem sounding out the words but he doesn’t always understand their meaning. You stop him; check he has understood tools, the rush.
And he is off again.
The teacher says, “I never knew you could read so well.”
Thanh shrugs, eager to get back to the story.


You pause him on another word, and this time he looks at you, smiles and then brings out a sheet of lined paper. On it is a list of words and their meanings.
“My cell mate,” he explains. “He teaching me.”
The list of words is practical: Shaving, food items from the canteen sheet etc. The words you need in prison. You look at the clock. There is only twenty minutes left. Should you go to the other class? But Thanh is back at the words. He wouldn’t let you go, and that fierce focus reminds you of when your son was learning to read; puzzling out words and sentences of simple stories; finding a toy, losing a toy, a dog eating a sandwich. You recognise the same focus, the magnetic pull of words because each word, each sentence, however simple, is a window, a magic door to the world. Each word unlocks something, makes the reader see more clearly, adds to the world.
Thanh finishes Ben’s Jerk Chicken Van.
“I never knew,” the teacher says.
“I want to learn,” says Thanh triumphantly.

Another teacher puts his head around the door and tells us the class is finishing fifteen minutes early. We are not told why.

Note: the class visit was part of a project (funded by the Bell Foundation) to use Reading Ahead with prisoners with esol needs.