Trust will go in a 'market of strangers' in prisons

Kerri Carr

Forum participants listen to prisons official Dr Anne Marie Martin try to explain the teacher sackings plan

Former prisoners spoke out at a public forum at Parliament House about their scepticism that outside providers could deliver effective education to NSW inmates, saying they didn’t “want to be thrown into some sort of market of strangers”.

The forum was called to protest against the NSW government’s plans to abolish 138 of the 158 qualified teacher positions in gaols, re-classifying some of these jobs as clerical and opening up prison education to private providers.

As teachers explained to the forum how much time they spent building the trust of inmates as a stepping stone to them being willing to participate in classes, Federation President Maurie Mulheron said professional, qualified teachers were important because they were also advocates for the inmates.

“No clerical or software program is going to be able to do that relationship-building that teachers do. No-one.

“I’m not going to be convinced by anyone that a private company, or outsourcing, or a group of clerical people sitting at a laptop can do the assessing of people — it’s just won’t happen,” Mr Mulheron said.

“I think with horror what it will be like if Corrective Services succeeds in this current endeavour,” said Justice Action coordinator Brett Collins, who spent 10 years behind bars.

“Speaking as a representative of prisoners … we don’t want to be thrown into some sort of market of strangers to be dropped in and out [of the prison system].”

“We want stability. We want the trust that has been built up over decades. We see this as a foul blow, an act that says we are of no worth at all,” Mr Collins said.

Education officer at Long Bay Correctional Centre, Helen Robertson said: “It’s the quiet interactions that we have with inmates in between scheduled classes where our hardest work is done.”

She said telling a person who’d been told during their life that they’re stupid and worthless was not someone to whom one could just say “This is your class — go to it”.

A colleague, Ryan Gubbins, said that getting prisoners to attend class when they are problematic involves everyone working together on the ground, all the time.

“When they trust you, it’s amazing, but it takes a while to get there, each and every time,” he said.

Former prisoner John Killick said he believed inmates would not accept the proposed model of education delivery and therefore would not attend classes.

“They haven’t got a lot of confidence in themselves. It’s hard to get them into the class and it’s hard to keep them there every day. It’s only when someone expresses an interest in them, which is a genuine interest that you see in professionals [that prisoners become willing and interested in learning],” he said.

“To have somebody come in from outside who's done a quick course, the prisoners will pick it up and the rapport won’t be there and there will be a drop-off in attendance at education classes.”

TAFE teacher Geoff Turnbull, an official visitor at Parklea Correction Centre, pointed out that the prison environment was volatile and potentially violent environment. “The suggestion that a private provider, whose motive is profit, with a Certificate 4, can come in and teach these vulnerable inmates is absolutely ludicrous and beggars belief,” he said.

The prisoner education forum was hosted by the Community Justice Coalition and the International Commission of Jurists.

Federation is petitioning State Parliament to reverse its decision to end high-quality education in NSW gaols.

Mr Mulheron said it was not in the community’s interest to have people leave prison without a chance to be skilled and have the chance to break the poverty and crime cycle that put them in there in the first place.

“What we really need is leadership at all levels of Corrective Services…we need people who, as a matter of principle, to turn back bad government policy not just simply implement it,” he said.

Mr Mulheron said it was “morally repugnant that people would invest in companies that make a profit out of incarcerating people, including making a buck out of sending people in to deliver educational services…because the mentality is to keep people in prison because that is your business model”.

“The business model is not to reduce the number of prisoners but to maintain it.”

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