Prison teachers strike

Kerri Carr

Teachers at the rally outside Parliament House

Teachers in Corrective Services and other supporters of public education in gaols took their protests to the gates of state parliament on September 14.

Corrective Services teachers took 24-hour strike action following the Baird government’s refusal to reverse its decision to outsource prison education. On May 12, Corrective Services NSW announced its draft Change Management Plan that would delete all Senior Correctional Education Officers, 35 of the 39 Educational Officers and all but 16 of the Correctional Teachers across the state, abolishing 138 of the current 158 qualified teacher positions.

Federation President Maurie Mulheron told the rally that with NSW having the highest recidivism rate in Australia “this is not the time to experiment with bad public policy to save $5 million”.

“Do we spend taxpayers’ money on just building more prisons and maintaining people in prison or do we give them educational programs where we know they’ve got a greater chance of taking up their role as a citizen within society and getting employment and paying taxes? I know which I would prefer as a model,” he said on a previous occasion.

Teacher at the Cessnock and Kariong correctional centres Julie Perry said external trainers were “business-focused, not education-focused”. She put the case for continuing identified Aboriginal teaching positions in NSW correctional centres — currently there are five but there are none in the government’s proposal.

“The ratio of identified positions in Corrective Services does not reflect the 35 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated. I am very, very concerned for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates as we will be even more disempowered if this move happens,” Ms Perry said.

“On behalf of the … Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated in NSW, I please ask you to reverse this unworkable business decision and let us get on with our job of teaching the inmates.”

Greens MLC David Shoebridge said: “You cannot replace a professional teacher with a clerk. This is not just an attack on inmates; this is an attack on the very concept of the profession of teaching.”

“Minister Elliott does not believe you need to be a professional teacher to teach. Well, I’ve got a message for you, Mr Elliott, I’m marking your grades on this, the people of NSW are marking your grades on this and it’s a ruddy big fail. You fail, your policy fails.”

Labor leader Luke Foley said the government’s cuts were “economic rationalism gone mad”. He said that in the name of cost-cutting the government wants to sack working people who teach essential life skills to prisoners “to save money in the short term”.

“But we all know what the long term will be: an increased prison bill because recidivism goes up,” he added.

Labor shadow corrective services minister Guy Zangari acknowledged the “great work” Corrective Services teachers do with inmates. “No one else can do the work that you do — you are highly trained, you are highly skilled.”

Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey said NSW prison teachers were at the forefront of reducing recidivism and yet the Coalition government was happy to cut their positions. The cuts would “continue to funnel people back into the prison system”, he said.

A letter from the Public Service Association was read out at the rally: “Only qualified teachers can deliver the education needed by the many prisoners who struggle with basic literacy and numeracy skills.... a disadvantage which no doubt has affected their life choices… The Baird-Berejiklian government has offered no case to support its blind push for privatisation and no evidence that this change will achieve anything other than reduce the effectiveness of the education programs currently in place. This is a government determined to dismantle our public services, and to do so without a mandate from the voters in NSW. But we are equally determined to join you in this fight against its extreme privatisation agenda. We have faith that by working together and supporting each other we can defend our public services.”

The rally was attended by teachers from Bathurst, Lithgow, Goulburn, Cessnock, Kariong, Emu Plain, Silverwater, Long Bay and Windsor. The rally was live streamed on You Tube, which allowed their colleagues from more remote correctional centres to hear the speeches.

Comments anger the profession

Teachers in prisons have been angered by Corrections Minister David Elliott’s comments to the Legislative Council.

He said he did “not necessarily” agree that teachers with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and diplomas were best suited to deliver educational programs to inmates in prisons, in response to a question by Lynda Voltz MP on September 2.

“You do not need to have a bachelor’s degree to teach prisoners. This is about the prisoners; this is not about the teachers,” he said in response to further questioning.

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