After 30 years inside, Tom Shannon speaks about how the eponymous literacy charity that has helped 50,000 prisoners grew out of his pen friendship with a volunteer.
July 1992. The first letter Tom Shannon had received since starting a life sentence seven years earlier.
“Dear Mr Shannon, I received a letter today from the Prison Reform Trust saying you would welcome having someone with whom to exchange letters. I’m afraid you have drawn my name out of the hat. It is Christopher.”
It was an unlikely match. Christopher Morgan, wealthy farmer and old Etonian and Shannon, a semi-literate orphan, who was surviving prison by standing up for himself. But the pen friendship blossomed and Morgan was impressed by Shannon’s vivid descriptions of life behind bars. In 1995, Morgan published the letters in a book, Invisible Crying Tree. It sold well, creating royalties. Morgan did not need the money and Shannon could not take it in jail, so the farmer put it to good use. Shannon had written about the appalling illiteracy rates in jail, with nearly half the prison population unable to read.
Morgan had the idea of getting prisoners who could read to teach those who could not. He approached the prison service head, Richard Tilt, who commissioned a pilot study at Wandsworth prison. With the help of Neil Lodge, an enthusiastic prison officer, it took off and, in 1997, the Shannon Trust was born.
Since then the trust has enabled prisoners to teach upwards of 50,000 fellow travellers to read and write across every prison in England and Wales.
Morgan died in 2011. But what of the prisoner the charity was named after? In 1985, he got into a drunken row with a friend, a fight ensued and the friend was killed. The prosecution offered him the option of manslaughter but, full of remorse, he pleaded guilty to murder.The judge ordered he serve a minimum of eight years, but he was inside for 30 years (initially he was a by his own admission a troublemaker) and was only released last January from Oakwood prison, near Wolverhampton. The Prisoner’s Advice Service represented him at the parole hearing and facilitated his move to a care home in the west country, run by the Langley House Trust.
The first thing that strikes me when I meet Shannon, now aged 77, is his size, he is around five foot three and weighs around six stone. Yet this is a man who fought his way through the first years of his sentence. In one letter to Morgan, he wrote of having 40 prison adjudications for attacking staff and prisoners and wrecking cells.
I ask where the rage came from. He talks of his early life. Born in London in 1938, he never knew his father and cannot remember his mother. She moved to Glasgow soon after he was born and was drowned in the Clyde when Shannon was two years old. A relative later told him his mother was a prostitute.
He was sent to Smyllum Park Orphanage, Lanark, run by nuns. I ask about life there and he turns away in silence, then refers me to a poem he wrote and sent to Morgan, about life in the orphanage.
I switch tack and ask about the first, troubled, years of his sentence. Where did that come from? “All my life there were bullies and you have to stand up to them. Prison was no different. If you let one get away with it, they will queue up to take advantage of you.”
He says a lot of his troubles stemmed from guilt and remorse. “There was not a day went by that I did not think about Fred [his victim]. I still do, every day.”
Why did he serve so long, when he was given a relatively short tariff? “At the start, I stood up for myself, like at the orphanage, just lashing out.”
This meant long spells in segregation. Then, “I settled down, I think writing to Christopher helped, it gave me an interest, something different in my life.”
But why 30 years? He says he could not engage in the parole process.” I didn’t want to talk about what I’d done, so my parole kept getting put back.”
Then he adds: “After that, I think they just forgot about me.”
But 30 years. Why did he not protest, legitimately; did he not want to come out? He goes quiet again. “I think part of me said I had taken Fred’s life, I should spend the rest of my life in jail.”
Later I research Smyllum Park and uncover a horror story. Former residents describe beatings from nuns as an everyday occurrence. And in a corner of the nearby St Mary’s church, lie dozens of small mounds of earth, the unmarked graves of the hundred or so children who died at Smyllum between 1864 and its closure in the 1980s.
Aged 11, Shannon moved to another orphanage run by the Catholic church. “That was better, I got to work on a farm and grew a love of nature. But there were still bullies, there always are and I fought them, as I always have”.
Shannon says he helped some prisoners to learn to read before the trust in his name was set up.
He remembers with pride a short letter one pupil sent him: “Dear Tommy, See how I can write now”. But he never got involved with the reading programme once the trust was up and running. “I didn’t want the fuss,” he says.
But he is clearly proud of what his friendship with Morgan achieved, though he gives the latter all the credit. “I just wrote a few letters”, he says.
He had one jail visit from Morgan. “I could have had more, but it was uncomfortable. I couldn’t talk with him, but when I wrote, the words poured out.”
Does he know how many prisoners have been taught to read under the scheme? “Maybe a few thousand?”, he replies.
When I tell him it’s more than 50,000 and counting, he seems genuinely astonished.
What of the future? He has just had an operation to remove cataracts and is waiting for new glasses. “Then I will go back to reading and learning,” he says.
His prospects are uncertain; council adult services pay for his accommodation and it is unclear whether it will continue to fund his stay at the home.
“I would just like to be settled, to know where I am. All the rage has gone now. I just want some peace,” he says.
Finally, I ask him where the title of the book of his published letters came from. He refers me to a letter he wrote to Morgan, which says: “Thank you for being there, for hearing my bleets (sic) my invisible crying tree.”
This man of few words is quiet again, then he says: “At Smyllum Park, there was a sycamore tree in the grounds. When I was beaten in a fight, I would climb it and cry. Then I would come down, find the lad who had beaten me and fight him again.”