Mainstream work paid at award rates to replace mindless tasks now performed by prisoners.
UPDATE DEC 19: The scheme as it is intended by Minister Elferink is “a good concept” for employers and Aboriginal employees, but many obstacles will need to be dealt with, says Chamber of Commerce Executive Officer Kay Eade.
People from the bush have little idea about the demands of a full-time job: “It’s not like in the movies,” is how local school girls described it who are taking part in a work familiarisation program run in part by the chamber.
Ms Eade says ordinarily it would be expected that intensive mentoring would be provided to workers who’d never held down a job before, and few employers could provide this.
However, she concedes that for prisoners, employed under strict conditions over a period of one or two years of their gaol term, unauthorised absenteeism would not be an issue, and the sustained exposure to mainstream work may create the necessary work ethic.
She says short time mentoring is a “waste of time” in her experience.
Ms Eade says problems are likely to start when the prisoners are released and relatives are making demands.
Workers keen to succeed in mainstream work do best in mining camps to which outsiders do not have access.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
“If you are sentenced in the NT you are sentenced to a job and a future.”
This is the motto for ground breaking prison reform being introduced by NT Attorney General John Elferink (pictured at right) who is also responsible for correctional services.
It will give inmates the opportunity of taking on paid work “inside the prison system or beyond its boundary,” says Mr Elferink.
“To that end we will advance a system by which prisoners may well be expected to engage in work before they leave the prison system.
“Preliminary trials are under way, and further reports of success or otherwise will be made public.
“We are being very cautious, but there are encouraging signs with two prisoners placed so far.”
Mr Elferink declined to give further details but it is understood the inmate workers are being paid at award rates – the money going into a trust account until release – and will have the opportunity of being engaged at their level of skills.
Mr Elferink is the Member for Port Darwin, the Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Correctional Services.
The former police officer entered politics in a surprise win in the previously ultra-safe Labor seat of MacDonnell, south of Alice Springs, which he held from 1997 to 2005.
He embarked on correspondence studies through Monash University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts at the end of 1997.
In 2008 he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from the University of New England and was admitted to the bar in October 2009.
He won the seat of Port Darwin in 2008 from ALP incumbent Kerry Sacilotto.
COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA
Minister Elferink’s initiative is visionary and deserves absolute bi-partisan and public support. If it succeeds it could not only ease the crisis in the NT prison system, but be the first meaningful step in decades to reduce our explosive racial tensions. It could well become a template for prison reform world-wide, and eradicate some popular myths about employing Aboriginal people.
Given the chronic shortage of staff in the NT economy, what would employers say to this offer: “I can get you someone who is sober, rested, clean, well dressed, punctual, reliable and available for at least two years.” The answer is likely to be: “I’ll take 20.”
No doubt the workers would be drawn, at least initially, from the cohort non-violent offenders. Some 400 of the 1400 people overcrowding our jails are doing time for traffic offences, and only around 200 have committed serious violent crimes.
More than 90% have been in jail before, or will be again, under the current regime.
Many among the present prison population – around 80% Aboriginal – would be exposed to a mainstream work experience for the first time in their lives.
The mates, skills, work habits and self-esteem they would be acquiring would be invaluable for their life after release, including keeping the job they’re in.
The urban myth about black employment in the mainstream may well be laid to rest as well, as we find out that not race, but reliability is what really counts in getting a job.
We may also retire the notion that it will take generations to make Aborigines work-ready, a notion that has served well a growing contingent of social workers and underachieving NGOs while doing little for their clients many of whom have a string of training tickets but no job.
Who knows, we may even stop regarding Aborigines as necessarily being welfare dependent, and begin to see them as the descendants of a tough, resilient and resourceful race, which prevailed in one of the world’s harshest environments, who created the oldest surviving culture – and the sky’s the limit for them, as much as is it for all of us.