OPINION: The Corrections Department seems curiously coy about the Government's plans to increase employment opportunities for prisoners by establishing more working prisons, where all prisoners take part in a structured 40-hour week of employment and rehabilitation activities. At least, no announcement to that effect can be found among recent media statements on the department's website.
But the programme is mentioned in the Corrections' Strategic Business Plan 2011-2015 (Year two), which sets out priorities - among other things - to reduce reoffending. These include establishing working prisons at Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, Rolleston and Tongariro/Rangipo prisons, where all prisoners will be engaged in work or training.
Prime Minister John Key included the developments last week in his Statement to Parliament, dealing with a slew of law-and-order issues. Government MP Jacqui Dean threw more light on them by asking Corrections Minister Anne Tolley in Parliament about the steps being taken to improve prisoner employment training in our prisons.
Several good reasons can be mustered in favour of establishing the three named institutions as full working prisons. Many prisoners have poor employment histories, as Ms Tolley explained, and most have no formal qualifications. Corrections Department research shows reoffending rates fell by over 8 per cent for prisoners who participated in prison-based employment activities and by over 16 per cent for those on the Release to Work programme. The minister has brandished international studies showing that having a job after release is a critical element to leading offenders away from a life of crime.
The Government accordingly has determined to give prisoners an opportunity to gain work experience and qualifications, to increase their prospects of finding employment on their release. This is part of its programme to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent.
The prisoners won't be paid much. Nor should they be, although token pay rates raise a risk. Low-paid prisoners could erode the competitiveness of businesses paying labour market rates.
But it is hard to quarrel with the aim of reducing recidivism. Let's endorse it - and see if the policy does what is intended.