Second chances on chain gang
Wanted: Enthusiastic, hard worker. On-the job training provided. Criminal record essential.
Not everyone wants to hire a convict. But in the last year more than 800 prisoners have managed to land jobs - while still serving their sentences.
The inmates are participating in a Department of Corrections release to work programme. Now more than 30 years old, the scheme has almost doubled in size in the past four years. In 2010, 465 prisoners were allowed out. This year more than 806 are clocking in as shelf-stackers, labourers, meat and forestry workers.
Work behind bars is a regular feature of penal reform but the Government is pushing to end the cycle that returns almost half of all inmates to jail within two years of release by turning prisons into an alternative labour pool.
Two-thirds of prisoners have never held down a job - and 90 per cent have problems with reading and writing. The initial joy of homecoming is often marred when the stigma of a record means a struggle to find employment. Bored, they backslide into drugs and alcohol and reconnect with criminal associates.
Corrections Minister Anne Tolley says education, skills training and careful reintegration are crucial to the Government's target of reducing reoffending by a quarter within the next three years. "It's always a struggle for ex-cons to get that chance. The benefits [of the programme] are pretty common sense. You get them used to working. You put them in a normal workplace and they have to mix with other people."
After a recent nationwide roadshow pushing the benefits of the release to work programme, 13 companies have gone into "partnership" with Corrections. They include the timber processing arm of the Clelands Group and waste management company EnviroWaste. Fletcher Construction, which once had a flat "no convictions" policy, is involved, using Rolleston inmates to repair earthquake-damaged homes in Canterbury.
The company is also building a new public-private partnership prison at Wiri in South Auckland. Offenders serving time at Auckland Women's Prison run the construction workers' canteen, having completed a national certificate in hospitality. And dozens of smaller firms are giving inmates a go on fixed-term contracts.
A compliant and punctual workforce - with no threat of strike, or holiday pay and pension contributions - is undoubtedly attractive while others like to demonstrate corporate responsibility.
Prisoners must have a low-security classification and have participated in a series of rehabilitation and education programmes. Some are escorted by guards, or picked up each morning by their employers.
On their return they are thoroughly searched for contraband. Since January 2013, 110 prisoners have been monitored using GPS tracking anklets, fitted before each shift. Staff also carry out drug-testing and spot-checks at businesses.
The employers must also be rigorously vetted.
"These are not Sunday school teachers," Tolley explained. "You don't just get employers to roll up and take a couple of prisoners. We need to make sure they are prepared for some of the things that can go wrong."
Risks include escape, theft, or inmates picking up a tool that could be used as a weapon.
Firenzo Woodfires production manager Simon Thacker admits he - and his staff - were apprehensive when the firm's owner suggested they take on inmates from Hawke's Bay's Mangaroa Prison.
"The girls in the office were very nervous. Some of the comments I got from the girls were ‘why are you giving those [men] a chance when there are other people out there who need jobs'."
Thacker was initially motivated by the financial incentives. "I looked just at the dollar signs. It actually stacks up because you pay the minimum wage, you get no aggro and you can get rid of them - there's none of this 90-day trial effort."
However, he's held jobs for two former inmates on their release. Those he couldn't find positions for, he supplied references. And after 18 months, he says participating in the scheme has changed the culture within the Napier-based business.
"I got it wrong. At the beginning I didn't really give a monkey's about them but seeing them improve and get skills, and people phoning me up for references for them, d'you know, it was a good buzz.
"I thought ‘I've been a part of fixing that guy's life'. I got quite a bit out of it and I think the company has got quite a bit out of it."
Thacker recommended the programme to his friend Joe Koenigsberger, manager of Pacific Powder Coating. "I've been a great advocate for it. [But] I'd be honest - if there was a bad egg I'd say ‘steer away from him'."
Koenigsberger has taken on four inmates and given permanent jobs to two.
"It's almost like a recruitment agency, we give the prison criteria," he said. "I'm not allowed to know what offence they are in for [but] I'm allowed to specify that I don't want murderers, or a sex offender, or thieves. Driving offences, minor assault I have no problem with. Any white collar crime, fraud or things like that."
His first recruit was an eye-opener. "He was a pretty scary guy . . . facial tattoos, big as a truck, Mongrel Mob member, the sort of guy you'd cross the road for."
For three months he worked for Koenigsberger, who secured him a welding apprenticeship with a local engineering firm on release. "About a month later I saw him splashed on the front page of the newspaper, he was involved in a shooting, back in the Mongrel Mob again . . . He got a job on his merit . . . but unfortunately his history caught up with him."
Former inmate Paul has a different story - he's been with PPC for a year and is grateful for the second chance because "I can't get anything else".
As a young film-maker he got heavily into partying and drugs - and ended up with a 16-month sentence for assault. "I'm not a bad offender, I'm just a guy who was down on his luck."
He served eight months, and says his life is now on track. He recently produced another short film. "It's way easier if you've got a job," he said. "I think release to work is great, but it depends on the individual."
Corrections estimate around half of release to work participants stay in employment for a year following release. In 2013-14, 125 scored permanent jobs through the scheme.
A spur for the Government is saving taxpayer dollars. An inmate costs almost $100,000 a year. If the Government meets its 2017 target, there will be 600 fewer back behind bars within a year of release. Those on release to work pay 30 per cent of what they earn towards board. They must also pay off outstanding fines, child maintenance, travel costs and for any tools or clothing needed for work. The rest goes into a saving account, accessible only when they get out.
An ex-con with a job also doesn't need welfare.
Corrections director of employment Stephen Cunningham insists the prisoners are not exploited.
"The employer is employing them on the normal employment regulations and some will be on minimum wage, but some will be on more than that . . . Many of them are upskilled and get on-the-job learning, it puts them in good stead for when they are released. They acquire a work history, a reference."
There is also little for the "lock'em up" brigade to complain about. No-one has escaped, or attempted to abscond, since February 2010. Just one prisoner is currently facing charges for an offence committed while on release to work. Cunningham says prisoners don't want to lose the privilege. "They get to go outside and contribute financially towards their family while inside. I'm not surprised those numbers are really low."
Sunday Star Times