New Zealand Puts Prisons to Work

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy www.odt.co.nz-

As part of a sustained initiative to decrease crime rates in the country, the New Zealand government is placing a major emphasis on getting today’s prisoners ready for employment when they go home. 

New Zealand’s crime rate is at a 35-year low, but the government intends to maintain the downward trajectory.  Its aim is to reduce crime by a further 20% by 2017.  Since repeat offenses by ex-cons make up a significant proportion of crimes, a major part of the strategy is to reduce re-offending by those who are already serving time.

The Department of Corrections aims to reduce re-offending by 25%.  Since a key factor in deciding whether a released offender will go straight or end up back behind bars is their employment status, a substantial effort is underway to ensure that inmates gain the skills and qualifications they need to obtain and keep a job.

Vocational training for real jobs.

Programs are being designed to lead to nationally-recognized qualifications that future employers will be happy to accept.  An example is the fifteen-week course leading to the National Certificate in Fitness Foundation Skills, which started at Rimutaka Prison in August.  Students are learning about nutrition, exercise, health and safety, customer services, and business practices in the fitness industry.

The program is being delivered by the Wellington Institute of Technology, which has been providing programs not only at Rimutaka, but also in prisons across the country for the past seven years.  It is hoped that graduates of the course will be able to find jobs in the fitness industry after their release from prison.

Prisoners to put in a full week’s work.

Aside from such vocational training, the government also wants to see prisoners working throughout their sentences.  The Department of Corrections is rolling out sixteen ‘working prisons’ at a rate of four per year.  At these working prisons, all eligible inmates will be expected to follow 44-hour weekly programs of education, training, work, and rehabilitation.

In order to provide the work aspect, private companies will be encouraged to set up training centers and workshops in prisons.  In a quid pro quo, inmates will receive training and qualifications and be paid market rates, while the companies will benefit from cheap labor.

Eligible New Zealand prisoners can take part in the Release to Work scheme, whereby they are allowed out on day release to work while wearing GPS tracking devices.  At Rolleston, one of the working prisons established in 2013, prisoners are allowed out each day to help rebuild homes damaged in the country’s devastating earthquake of 2011.

Although the Department of Corrections cannot force prisoners to work, in practice there is little need to.  Inmates are bored of sitting around in their cells and happy to be involved in something constructive.  For those who do refuse, sanctions are available, such as reducing visits or phone calls.

Maintaining the right focus.

The New Zealand Department of Corrections does seem to have the right idea.  The RAND Corporation’s meta-analysis of more than fifty prior studies of correctional education and training programs in the U.S. suggests that taking part in vocational training while in prison reduces recidivism by about 36%.  This matches the findings of an earlier study of more than 7,000 offenders released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Those who participated in apprenticeships or vocational training were 33% less likely to recidivate, while those who had worked in prison industries were 24% less likely.  The data suggests that New Zealand should ensure that the focus stays on the training aspects, rather than just the potential for cheap labor.

It will take time before the results of the prison initiative are seen, but it will be worth watching closely to see what lessons can be learned.