My role as Director of Prisons places in me in a unique position with regard to access and engagement with a broad range of people across Tasmania and mainland Australia, exposing me to many languages, cultures, perceptions, and opportunities.
Approaching the symposium Communicating: The Heart of Literacy from this positon was intriguing, but also done with a degree of apprehension. The other participants, their own unique life experiences, and what they brought to the event, made it inspirational, transformational, and, for me personally, very thought provoking.
I took away from this meeting reassurances, confidence, and real inspiration that we collectively and individually understand the challenges of literacy, but also the chance to influence and engage more broadly using communication to benefit all Tasmanians, particularly those who are disadvantaged.
Communication is an integral part of our life and culture. Used well it can be very powerful, influential and have a positive impact; but used poorly, it can have quite the reverse effect, sometimes with devastating consequences, particularly in the environment I work in.
Many of the contributors to crime are poor communicators and have low education, and so it is therefore vital that when people are sent to prison we use the time they are with us constructively, to improve their language skills, abilities, and qualifications, addressing many of the reasons that led to them committing crime and losing their liberty in the first place.
Every prisoner is a member of our community and nearly all of them will return to our community, so if we can address some of the circumstances and social skills that have led to their initial imprisonment we have the chance to assist them in returning to the community a different person that the one who came to prison.
A person who has a greater awareness of their crime, its impact, and their own circumstances that led them to commit the crime, will have a critically much greater understanding of how they can avoid such situations in the future. We can do this by providing them with opportunities through many different learning options, but improving their literacy and numeracy skills is, in many cases, the key priority. For many prisoners addressing such fundamental communication issues would allow them to further develop other skills and qualities and to continue to work toward using their time in prison constructively.
No one wants to be the victim of crime, and people who commit crime are, and should be, punished. However, if we can even start to address the circumstances that led to them committing crime in the first place, then we can increase the chance that when they do return to the community they are less likely to commit further crime and more likely to contribute responsibly to the community. The outcome for us all being a safer Tasmania.
Ian Thomas is Director of the Tasmania Prison Service. He was an attendee at the “Communicating: The Heart of Literacy” symposium at Government House in November 2018. Ian’s reflections, reproduced here, were first published on 21st June 2019 in The Mercury.