OPINION: The Government will find strong support for its plan to set prisoners to work. New Zealanders will appreciate its combination of common sense and practicality, although barrow-pushing critics are bound to emerge.
For decades they have prevented the large-scale employment of prisoners, arguing that it is degrading and a threat to business and jobs. Coming from both the Left and the Right, the critics have managed to persuade New Zealand's successive centrist governments to let prisoners continue moldering in their cells. Prison farms do exist, such as that at Rolleston, and workshops are common, but nothing like the new plans has been implemented.
A sign that they now will be is the support they have received from Labour, which means strong support in Parliament - support that probably reflects the growing feeling among voters that imprisonment is unproductive and that something must be done. Repeat offending is too frequent, suggesting rehabilitation has failed, and even if former inmates do not return to crime too many of them do not build decent lives.
Prison work will not be a wonder cure for those ills but it will improve lives inside prison in a way that will help former inmates build productive lives outside.
The work will help give prisoners the basic skills needed if they are to make their way legally in the world: The habit of turning up for a job; the qualifications needed for better than menial employment; the knowledge that you need to pay your way; the ability to handle your money; the satisfaction of co-operating with others on projects and of completing them.
Walking out of the prison gate with the habits of the good worker, a trade certificate in the pocket and a little cash in the bank is a sound foundation for a good life on the outside. It is likely that will reduce reoffending.
It would be a misfortune if that prospect were blocked by the objections from powerful groups whose voices have for too long held sway.
Unions have traditionally objected to working prisons on the grounds that they undermine employment in the wider economy. That might be so to some degree, but prison enterprise is unlikely to be so extensive that it affects the national job market. A similar point counters the objection from business that prison enterprise threatens private enterprise: The incarcerated workshops and farms are unlikely to be so productive as to seriously compete in the nation's marketplace.
In any case, the social and human gains coming from prison work are significant enough to outweigh any damaging effects on the economy.
Another objection comes from some prisoner-rights advocates who are saying inmates must not be required to work. On the contrary, work should be expected of fit inmates as it is expected of people on the outside. It is the shirkers who most need the discipline of turning out daily and learning that effort is the producer of good things - mental satisfaction and material rewards.
Those hopes are based on evidence. Release To Work, which places prisoners in outside jobs, has reduced reoffending significantly, as have the work schemes now operating in prisons.
These moves are part of the Government's welcome intention to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent within five years. Working prisons will surely help it reach its goal.
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