It's often something we take for granted — the ability to read.

But it's a skill former inmate Steve Richards used to feel insecure about. Richards suffers from dyslexia, but had the opportunity in the 12 months he spent at the Toronto East Detention Centre to participate in Literal Change — a program he says changed his life.

"It had a big effect on me," Richards said. "I used my skills for writing people on the outside while I was there."

Richard wrote letters to his girlfriend and his 7-year-old son. He said it felt good to maintain that connection through writing personal letters — something he didn't previously have the skills to do on his own.

An essential skill

Robyn Keystone and Martha Jodhan launched Literal Change last August. The non-profit program has volunteers visit two of Ontario's maximum security detention centres weekly to help incarcerated men improve their reading and writing.

The two women have a background in education and a unique approach to literacy coaching. One-on-one literacy lessons aren't always accessible or affordable, but the skills are essential.

"Everything is reliant on print and text in the world today," Jodhan said. "We've met some guys who can't read simple things like street signs or a menu."

Jodhan says the volunteers spend about 14 hours a week at the Toronto East and Toronto South detention centres. As the program enters its second year, they're training four additional volunteers, hoping to change the lives of more inmates.

"It's a really great feeling," Jodhan said. "I've seen some of my students in the 12 months reading and writing so much faster and feeling like they can apply for the jobs they want now because they're more confident."

Robyn Keystone

Robyn Keystone founded Literal Change last August with Martha Jodhan after learning there was a need for literacy programming for inmates. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

'We really, really need it'

Keystone and Jodhan usually work with children, but they wanted to spread their reach. Keystone says when they had the idea they gave the detention centres a call.

"They said, 'This is fate; there is a lack of programming like this and we really, really need it,'" Keystone said.

According to the 2014-2015 annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, close to 60 per cent of offenders at admission to federal custody have less than a Grade 12 education. The report also states that access to functional literacy and educational programming are persistent challenges. 

Literal Change has seen positive results and huge improvements in the men they've worked with, Keystone said.

"We're doing really well. I think because we are organized, consistent, dedicated and passionate about the whole thing," she told CBC Toronto.

The volunteers work with people with low literacy, GED and high school diploma hopefuls as well as ESL learners. They've seen men who have gone through the program go on to finish high school and get jobs after they serve their time.

In addition to literacy lessons, they also encourage the men to create art and write poetry. They share some of the content on a blog linked to their website. The volunteers say the men are excited to see their work being shared and often ask how many "likes" it's getting. 

They will also post quotes and pieces of art on their Instagram page.

'It brought my confidence up'

Richards said he now lives and works in Brampton and the skills he learned are already helping him in his new job. He has no problem reading and writing invoices and communicating with clients.

He realized before he took the program he relied a lot on texting and the use of short-form words. Now he understands the importance of being able to construct full sentences and having the ability to do that on his own, without feeling any shame.

"It brought my confidence up big time, for sure."