Should Prison Inmates be Required to Earn their Keep?

In America, some jurisdictions have what they call a “pay to stay” prison fee system, where inmates must pay on a sliding scale in proportion to what they can afford.

In others, inmates must cover the costs essentials including their trousers, blankets and toilet paper by payment or work.

But while modern-day Australia was founded in a penal colony, this is not the approach taken here yet.

In NSW, new laws introduced this year mean that it will be possible for the Commissioner of Corrective Services to collect money from prisoners who participate in the “external works release program” by making deductions from their pay in order to cover the cost of their incarceration.

Prisons across NSW are already becoming increasingly self-funded through internal work programs whereby inmates perform factory-type jobs such as manufacturing number plates, saving taxpayers millions of dollars per year.

Inmates get short courses in business, trades and using equipment including forklifts.

They have even been put to work on farms to cultivate their own food.

Those farms have already more than a million apples, one and a half million loaves of bread and millions of litres of milk.

They now provide 80 per cent of all beef consumed in prisons.

The food programs are set to expand across NSW, with John Maroney Correctional Centre at Windsor to establish a food manufacturing plant.

According to the NSW Government Justice website, at least 10 correctional centres now produce food – including vegetables, cattle, fruits, wheat, milk and dairy.

Many inmates are grateful for the opportunity to gain skills while in prison.

One former engineer that ended up behind bars told the ABC he was thankful for his training in IT which he was confident would help him get a job when he finished serving his sentence.

Any inmate who doesn’t participate in the program is crazy, he says.

Various programs provide traineeships and skills for inmates to rebuild their lives when they leave.

In the last year, 600 prisoners completed short food-related courses in hygiene and food handling, hospitality, horticulture and agriculture.

In South Australia, Prison Industries, the corrective services body which seeks help inmates integrate back into the community, seeks to help inmates become employable.

It offers on-the-job training, but says it will not undertake partnerships where it is likely to be in competition with a local market or affect the local community.

It also says that it will not enter partnerships with companies looking to be propped-up whilst experiencing financial difficulties.

But not all work opportunities within prisons are non-controversial.

Last year, one mining company in the NT came under criticism for paying prisoners award wages for working in a salt mine.

The basis of the criticism was that miners normally receive double the award wage and that the company was allowing inmates to take away jobs for miners.

But this was not the case, as the mining company was having difficulties recruiting employees even before the scheme was set up.

One mining union nevertheless remains unhappy, calling the arrangement ‘slave labour.’

The country liberal government defends the use of inmates as miners.

Territory Correctional Services Minister believes that the statutory wage is analogous to a traineeship where they learn skills that can benefit them enormously when they come out.

He believes strongly that inmates should work and sees it as a good motivation, as those who work hard will be rewarded with full-time work once they leave prison.

For inmates who participate in the scheme, 5% of their earnings go into a victims’ assistance fund and $125 a week goes towards their board costs in prisons.

They get $60 spending money and the rest is put into a trust account until they have served their sentence.

Despite these programs, prisons aren’t cheap to run.

The average taxpayer may not be thrilled at the news that it costs the community upwards of $250 – $300 per head per day depending on each particular prison, according to the Productivity Commission.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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