Teachers denied fairness

Where's the evidence that's damned more than a hundred gaol educators?

Daniel Conlon

Where there is an objective is to alleviate a problem or encourage a solution a combined effort by all parties is needed. For this to be achieved there is a tried and tested process called procedural fairness.

This process, according to the Ombudsman, "involves decision-makers informing people of the case against them or their interests, giving them a right to be heard (the hearing rule), not having a personal interest in the outcome (the rule against bias), and acting only on the basis of logically probative evidence (the no-evidence rule) ".

In the attempt to privatise the provision of education in the gaols of NSW, none of these elements have been afforded to the loyal, dedicated and qualified staff employed to teach inmates of NSW prisons.

Initially, what was forthcoming was a litany of misrepresentations, zero consultation, biased appraisals and an absence of evidence-based critique. The final insult in this attempted mass sacking is a small number of leftovers (20? 10? 40?) could apply for positions as clerks requiring no education qualifications and a much-reduced salary.

In brief, at the directive of the NSW Corrections Minister, David Elliott, existing trained and qualified teachers employed in the state's gaols are to be replaced by clerks and education is to be provided by outside providers, a euphemism for private provision. Apparently it is his considered belief that "you don’t need to be a specialist to teach prisoners" (reply to question by Standing Committee Number 6).

In the absence of objective evidence, policy development becomes confused and partisan to the newest party whim. Minister Elliott’s appraisal of existing education provision as a "small education provider reflecting the skills of teachers who are available at a centre, not necessarily the needs of inmates (reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 9)” is baffling, particularly in the light of repeated requests by staff to have existing positions filled.

The Commissioner of Corrective Services, Peter Severin’s summation earlier this year of existing education provision as "Corrective Services… providing education and vocational training in pretty much the same way for decades. But there are now many specialist providers, in the private and public sectors, who offer more targeted and in many ways better services than we are" speaks volumes about his knowledge of education provision in gaols.

Such comments lend credence to the independent NSW Inspector of Custodial Services, Dr John Paget’s summation of prison reform: "Clearly in NSW it remains a subversive notion that evidence and analysis might inform penal policy."

The Minister states that you don’t have to be a specialist to teach in prisons. The Commissioner, on the other hand, suggests that there are specialist outsiders who offer "more targeted and, in many ways, better services". Confused?

All this brings into sharp focus what the state Audit Office reported in 2016, that it "was impossible to tell how well or badly individual public gaols are doing because they are just not issued with key performance benchmarks to measure themselves against" (Government News, 2016:1).

If there is a lack of evidence then what is the basis of these decisions? There are possibly two answers to this question.

The first is that the evidence could have come from the review of education provision in gaols that KPMG was commissioned to carry out. The second is what might easily be described as a complete disregard for objective evidence provided by educational professionals, not just in the Australian jurisdiction but in other countries.

The first answer, that the evidence comes from the KPMG review commissioned by the Department of Justice, is difficult to either disprove or prove as this "review" is either cabinet-in-confidence or commercial-in-confidence. Where the information for that "review" was obtained is anybody’s guess. We can be certain that the people on the ground were not consulted.

The second answer is easier to arrive at: the complete absence of probative evidence objectively gathered and professionally researched material that might inform a decision to benefit all concerned.

Ironically, the very type of material on which the Justice Department executes its jurisdictional mandate is absent in this decision.

Indeed, on ABC 2BL Radio's Mornings With Wendy Harmer, the minister referred to "art appreciation classes" taking priority over literacy classes. Amazing, considering there is no such a class taking place in any gaol in NSW, let alone in Cooma.

Aside from the factually empty and bias-filled bombast of those who should know better, let us consider the real story.

The provision of education in gaols, either in NSW or any other jurisdiction, is a proven winner in terms of reducing recidivism. Independent reports from both Victoria and Western Australia support this contention. But perhaps this is not the issue of debate with those who seek to destroy the existing infrastructure of loyal, professional and dedicated professionals.

Perhaps it is the contention that the privatised provision of education will be cheaper, more efficient, more diverse and more targeted. Here again, however, the Department fails the no-evidence test.

Evidence provided by the Business School of Sydney University (2016) states that in Victoria, the state with the most privatised gaols in the country, the average cost per inmate is 19 per cent more expensive than in other jurisdictions.

Is that a peculiarly Australian experience with the privatisation of gaols and associated interventions to reduce recidivism?

It is noteworthy that the American federal government commenced the eradication of contracts with private gaols stating unequivocally that: private facilities "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security" as government-run services (memo by Deputy US Attorney-General Sally Yates quoted in "Federal Private Prisons Are an American Embarrassment", Jack Holmes, Esquire, August 18, 2016) .

Daniel Conlon is an educator and Federation Representative at Long Bay Correctional Centre