Get­ting more pris­on­ers in jobs good re­sult

Hawke's Bay Today - - Opinion - Mike Wil­liams

An old friend work­ing for a se­nior politi­cian called me a month ago to see if I knew of any jobs for ex-pris­on­ers. The politi­cian had been at a func­tion in her elec­torate when a for­mer pris­oner ap­proached her with a tale of woe.

De­spite hav­ing served his sen­tence in full, not of­fended in the many years since his re­lease, taken sev­eral cour­ses and re­ceived pos­i­tive ref­er­ences for vol­un­tary work he’d un­der­taken, he sim­ply couldn’t even get as far as a job in­ter­view.

I set up a meet­ing with the ex-pris­oner who ar­rived well turned-out with a pre­dictably thin CV that a church group he’d joined had helped him to pre­pare.

He seemed in­tel­li­gent and cer­tainly looked em­ploy­able. He said that he was happy to “give any­thing a go” hav­ing ex­isted on a ben­e­fit for many long years.

I called a friend who runs a large com­pany with which I’m as­so­ci­ated and which I know is short of work­ers.

I also knew that in re­cent years, the short­age of work­ers in Auck­land has pushed this com­pany to take on ex-pris­on­ers and that the ex­pe­ri­ence so been pos­i­tive so far.

My em­ployer mate asked his hu­man re­sources man­ager to give the ex-pris­oner an in­ter­view which re­sulted in a job trial.

When I checked two weeks later the ex-pris­oner had set­tled into a job as a cleaner and his man­agers were happy to keep him on.

Hav­ing now been in­volved in pe­nal re­form for seven years, this episode was a pleas­ing and fit­ting end to a year in which we fi­nally saw some progress to­wards a more en­light­ened prison sys­tem and a long over­due re­duc­tion in New Zealand’s bloated prison pop­u­la­tion.

Af­ter ris­ing, ap­par­ently in­ex­orably, for years pris­oner num­bers took a wel­come dip dur­ing 2018 mean­ing that the long-suf­fer­ing tax­payer was sup­port­ing about 500 fewer pris­on­ers at $110,000 per an­num each and avoid­ing spend­ing an­other bil­lion or two on yet an­other jail.

One rea­son for this fall in pris­oner num­bers is the very low lev­els of un­em­ploy­ment.

This is en­cour­ag­ing more em­ploy­ers, like my mate, to take the plunge and give ex-pris­on­ers a chance.

I’ve spo­ken to sev­eral of these brave cap­tains of in­dus­try and can re­port that none who chose wisely has been dis­ap­pointed.

The Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment must get some credit for more pris­on­ers get­ting jobs on re­lease, hav­ing doggedly pur­sued a now sig­nif­i­cant group of ini­tially du­bi­ous em­ploy­ers over the last five years.

This kind of ef­fort pays big div­i­dends.

Ger­many, which boasts a much lower in­car­cer­a­tion and re­cidi­vism rate than New Zealand, in­sists on its ma­jor em­ploy­ers ac­cept­ing a mod­est quota of re­leased pris­on­ers.

Cor­rec­tions Minister Kelvin Davis also gets a big pat on the back. The Labour Party went into last year’s elec­tion with a pol­icy of re­duc­ing the prison pop­u­la­tion by 30 per cent over time and Kelvin’s al­ready bring­ing this about.

With­out any new leg­is­la­tion to rely on Minister Davis chal­lenged the pub­lic ser­vants to come up with 10 ideas on how to re­duce pris­oner num­bers.

One bright spark ob­served that many pris­on­ers who were el­i­gi­ble re­lease with mon­i­tor­ing an­klets were un­able to get re­leased on pa­role be­cause their lit­er­acy was so poor they couldn’t fill in the nec­es­sary forms.

The an­swer was ob­vi­ously to help those el­i­gi­ble for this kind of re­lease and this has worked.

This story un­der­lines the need for a much bet­ter un­der­stand­ing by se­nior Jus­tice of­fi­cials of who is in their care.

It has been known for at least seven years that up to 85 per cent of New Zealand pris­on­ers are func­tion­ally il­lit­er­ate. This was re­vealed when the for­mer Na­tional Gov­ern­ment wisely be­gan eval­u­at­ing pris­on­ers on ar­rival.

De­spite this widely prop­a­gated knowl­edge, pris­on­ers were still ex­pected to fill in com­plex forms. Ev­ery pris­oner has a case man­ager and you’d have to ask what on earth these peo­ple were do­ing.

Look­ing to­wards 2019, The Howard League would hope to see some agree­ment on leg­isla­tive re­form in the Jus­tice space.

If I was to of­fer ad­vice to min­is­ters An­drew Lit­tle, Kelvin Davis and Stu­art Nash who meet reg­u­larly to ad­vance jus­tice mat­ters, I’d again sug­gest im­ple­ment­ing a law of­fer­ing pris­on­ers re­duced sen­tences in re­turn for ac­quir­ing skills like lit­er­acy, car­pen­try, drain lay­ing, etc, etc.

This pol­icy worked won­ders when im­ple­mented in Amer­i­cans and heav­ily con­trib­uted to New York State’s 26 per cent re­duc­tion in pris­oner num­bers in less than a decade.

This pol­icy was ini­tially de­vel­oped by Act Party leader David Sey­mour, was adopted by the Na­tional Party in its 2018 elec­tion man­i­festo and en­dorsed by ac­tivists nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the drive for longer sen­tences.

Given that prove­nance, this pol­icy should be bla­tantly filched by Jacinda Ardern and Win­ston Peters with loud thanks to its orig­i­na­tors.

In 2019 we’ll see how far the re­cent ex­plo­sion of com­mon sense has gone!

Mike Wil­liams grew up in Hawke’s Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a for­mer Labour Party pres­i­dent. All opin­ions are his and not those of

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