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Did you know that the first glimmer of Easyread was born in prison?

Let me tell you the whole story.

When my father retired, around 1990, my mother was quite worried.   He’d always enjoyed work and at times we saw precious little of him.   Now, she feared, he was going to test the old saying – “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch”.   She was a very resourceful woman, however, and quietly looked around for things he could expend his energies on without getting on everyone else’s nerves

I think this was on her mind when she came across something in the papers.   It was an advertisement from the Prison Reform Trust, inviting readers to enroll in a pen-friend scheme.  They were putting outsiders in touch with long term prisoners in the hope that corresponding would give them a window on the world outside.

So they each sent out their first letters.

My father got no reply.   By the time my mother was reading out her third letter, my father’s vanity was coming under stress so he wrote again.   This time he did receive a letter from a man in for murder, called Tom Shannon.

Tom had lost his temper and hit a friend with a hammer, putting him into hospital.  Once in hospital he got MRSA and died.

The next morning, the police called on Tom’s digs.  “Mr Shannon, it’s been called murder.  You put him in harm’s way and he’s died”.   Nobody really believed it was murder or that any court would say so – except for Tom.  He pleaded guilty.  The whole court tried to persuade him to change his plea, but he had made up his mind.   He had done this to his best friend.  Prison would purge his sin.

In prison, he developed the opinion that sudden attack was his best form of defence.  He soon joined the small group of difficult prisoners continually on the free transfer list.

But once he started writing, he warmed to the project.   His letters were wildly ungrammatical but they were vivid, often rather poetic and perpetually entertaining.    They were a real eye-opener for someone unfamiliar with prison.  My father found that a lot of his conceptions were wrong.

So he collected all the letters into a book called “The Invisible Crying Tree”, a phrase from one of Tom’s letters.

The book attracted press attention and sold quite well. The question soon arose as to what to do with the royalties.

My father was already beginning to be vaguely aware of the appalling problems of illiteracy in our prisons.  Tom had mentioned it and there was some press comment at the time as well.

It seemed that half our prisoners couldn’t read – a huge problem and surely partly responsible for getting them locked up.   But it also meant that the other half could read.   Maybe they could be matched up.   It was just one of those ideas that come to you soaking in the bath, but the more he thought about it, the more enthusiastic he became.

So The Shannon Trust was born.

It took several years of struggling for the idea to catch on, but he finally found a supporter within a local prison who helped facilitate this match-up.

The facilitator recruited literate prisoners who would act as mentors to the illiterate prisoners. In return the mentors were given various small concessions, such as having their cell door open through the day.  And they also now had a fulfilling way to spend their day.

After running this for a few months, an inspection was carried out at the prison and it was reported that the Onslow Wing where the reading lessons were conducted was alive with enthusiastic mentors and mentees, teaching and learning how to read.  They were wandering round the wing proudly displaying their bright red reading manuals.

There was an interesting moment in a Birmingham prison, early on, when the governor discovered all these mentors on his wings and proposed to pay them.   After some discussion, the mentors asked him not to.   They did not want their mentees to think they were doing it for money.

Around this time I took over running the activities of the Trust during my father’s illness. We had a few programs running but the impact was obviously limited to these few prisons. We wanted more.

So I phoned around the various national papers and eventually managed to get the Saturday Telegraph Magazine to send a journalist over for one of the morning sessions.

The journalist came along, but his article never appeared.   But suddenly, 18 months later and just at the right moment for us, it was finally printed.  It aroused great interest.

The Trust was soon receiving fan mail from people all up and down the country asking to help. We welcomed them in with open arms!

Suddenly, in a couple of weeks, my father’s lonely plod around the country was replaced by ardent volunteers promoting the reading manual, called ToebyToe, into their local prison.

The Trust has not yet reached its full potential and probably never will – the need is so great.

It is currently operating in some 130 prisons – but there are 150 in the UK.   Furthermore, in so far as we can tell, it is probably teaching about 10,000 prisoners during the course of a year and there are about 50,000 in prison at any one time who effectively can’t read.   There is also the obvious international potential for the process.

The Trust has a long way to go but is alive and well. You can find out more information at

 It was due to my activities directing the Trust, and seeing the difference it made in the lives of prisoners, that I threw myself with renewed vigour into improving literacy in children. I wanted to intervene before illiteracy grabbed hold of some of them and turned them down the wrong path in life. And so, Easyread was born!

David Morgan is Managing Director of the Easyread System