Funding boost for inmate education

Taxpayers are about to pump an extra $5 million a year into educating criminals.

Prisoner learning places will increase from about 900 last year to 1700 in 2015, and funding will rise to $7m a year for the next two years, up from $2m in 2013 and 2014.

Funding was $2m a year in 2013 and 2014 and 2013.

The funding is provided by the Tertiary Education Commission - responsible for dishing out tax dollars for tertiary education in New Zealand.

TEC chief executive Tim Fowler said the funding would be spread across a range of qualifications from employment skills, NCEA 2 and Maori studies through to trade certificates in specialties such as painting, forestry, hospitality building, construction and computing, he said.

Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said it was money well spent.

"If we can educate prisoners beyond basic literacy and numeracy and give them the skills and training they need to gain meaningful employment, then they are less likely to reoffend.

"The money spent on prisoner learning places is an investment. It is good for offenders because it gives them skills, self-esteem and the opportunities to support themselves and their families legitimately."

Taxpayers would get value for their money because the social and financial costs of crime would fall, he said.

"Finally, it is good for employers, who are crying out for skilled workers in many industries."

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Convicted killer John Barlow, who mentored several prisoners to study while he was in jail, is a passionate advocate for the importance of education for inmates, believing prisons need dedicated study units.

"Evidence over the last 50 years in the United States shows that people who attain degrees while in prison almost never return to prison," he told The Dominion Post earlier this month. "That means no more victims, they can get a job and pay tax, and the state does not have to pay $100,000 a year to keep them in prison."

Tim Fowler, chief executive of the Tertiary Education Commission, which will provide the funding, said it would said the funding would be spread across a range of qualifications from employment skills, NCEA Level 2 and Maori studies, through to trade certificates in specialties such as painting, forestry, hospitality, building, construction and computing.

Mark Gill, principal instructor of catering and laundry at Rimutaka and Arohata prisons, has spent years in the system training inmates for life on the outside, and backs more prisoner learning.

"I really do believe in providing training to prisoners. Some of them have never had these opportunities in their lives."

There were many success stories as a result of prisoners gaining qualifications while behind bars, he said. "There are guys who have gained NZQA certificates in hospitality in prison and are now working in the industry and some in very good places."

Ex-prisoners still faced a challenge getting a job, but they were encouraged to be upfront with prospective employers, Gill said.

"If they want to start off on the right foot, they have to be honest and tell their future boss where they gained their qualifications."

The move to provide more free training to prisoners comes at a time when tertiary enrolments are dropping and those who sign up for higher learning are finding themselves in increasing debt.

Data on student loans and allowances released by Statistics NZ in January showed there were 416,415 tertiary enrolments in 2013 - a fall of 3462 on the previous year.

The number of students who turned to loans to pay for their study fell from 200,895 in 2012 to 191,958 in 2013. But the average sum those students borrowed jumped from $7940 to $8440.

Those who left tertiary study in 2012 did so with an average of $16,900 in loan debt, a $190 increase on the previous year.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce's office said the increase in prisoner education learner places was predominantly for free courses.

 - The Dominion Post

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