Gaol, prison, correctional centre, “big house”, “inside” – these are just some of the words used to describe my workplace. It’s not a glamorous place to work but it’s challenging and rewarding. I should know – I’ve been working here for more than 22 years.
After all this time of doing my best for Corrective Services (CSNSW), helping to rehabilitate inmates, receiving numerous awards and being a manager of a dedicated team of professional teachers, I was told in May that I am soon to be made redundant.
Most education staff across the state’s correctional centres are to lose their jobs; it is heartbreaking.
No expense was spared to get us all to Sydney to hear the news of our professional demise. The news was delivered in cold, hard facts, offering no recognition of all the good work we had collectively achieved over the years.
It had been decided that the Education unit wasn’t effective, lacked a job skills focus, teachers had no real expertise, we hadn’t kept up with changes and education could be done better and cheaper with specialist providers.
It was a real kick in the guts. A total of 138 education roles will be lost along with many years of experience and specialist knowledge. Clerk positions will replace the teachers with only one or two clerks in each centre. These clerks will not need any education qualifications.
In the proposed change management plan there are no longer any SCEOs in centres but we can apply for a lower-level clerical role at a reduced pay rate. This role would be mainly data input, facilitating the access for the external providers to inmates and resources within the centre. Needless to say, I will not be applying.
During my years at Mannus Correctional Centre I have seen inmates come into the Education unit and whisper that they can’t read or write properly. Others have completed a program where they first learn to read a children’s storybook: we record them reading it onto a CD and then post the book and the CD home to their children so that they can listen to Dad read them a story. The pride the inmate has in himself at this achievement is well worth seeing.
Our teachers work with students who want to learn new skills in horticulture, computers, preparation for looking for jobs, money matters, maths, reading, spelling, writing and workplace health and safety. Research shows inmates who engage in adult education while incarcerated have a 10-15 per cent less risk of returning to gaol.
Under a memorandum of understanding with TAFE we are able to offer a variety of TAFE courses that are relevant to the work inmates do at our centre and help prepare them for their release with relevant qualifications. Ours is a small centre but we have a variety of industries that employ inmates — a working farm with sheep and cattle, an apple orchard, farm maintenance, building maintenance, ground maintenance, kitchen and laundry, forestry and a timber processing plant.
TAFE courses we provide include logistics, working at heights, White Card, forklift, food safety, chemicals, chainsaws and first aid. These courses are always popular and have waiting lists.
Corrections Minister David Elliott is misinformed when he says in his press release that education “will be outsourced to specialist training organisations after a review found the current system in not sufficiently focused on job skills”. All we do is prepare inmates for jobs by improving their basic skills, offering vocational skills and working through how to apply for jobs after their release.
The Minister’s comment that we provide “mainly art and music courses rather than areas linked to inmate employment” is wrong. Art and music courses have a very important place in some correctional centres but the bulk of our vocational training is based on the industry needs of the centre in consultation with industry staff.
Why are we allowing a disenfranchised group, the most damaged by our systems and educational experiences to be deemed less deserving of a good, well-rounded education provided by qualified teachers in every centre?
Debbie Harris is Senior Correctional Education Officer at Mannus CC and Vice President of the Corrective Services Teachers Association. She has written on the axeing of jail educator jobs in her blog Deb's World
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