Minister's blame of teachers debunked

Dinoo Kelleghan

Organiser Rob Long (right) hands over bundles of Federation's signed petition to Labor MP Guy Zangari

Pushed to defend his planned mass sackings of prison educators after Federation successfully forced a parliamentary debate on the issue, Corrections Minister David Elliott made hollow claims his new “model” would double inmate literacy rates.

The 14,000-strong Federation petition presented to parliament on October 20 through shadow minister for corrections Guy Zangari called on the Baird government to review its decision to expunge 132.5 of 152.5 full-time teaching roles — 85 per cent of teachers — to make way for clerks and private-provider trainers to run education in prisons.

“The government knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing — especially the value of educators within the Corrections system,” Mr Zangari, Labor MP for Fairfield, said, gesturing towards the gallery packed with Federation members and praising the “passionate” teachers.

The turbulent debate that followed saw speeches in favour of Federation’s petition from Labor MP Jihad Dib (Lakemba) and Greens MP Jenny Leong (Newtown) among others while the Speaker ejected Labor MP Prue Car over her energetic defence of Federation’s position and threatened to send out Mr Elliott, demanding, “Does the Minister for Corrections wish to join the Member for Londonderry?”

Mr Elliott attempted to explain the government’s decision by saying the current teachers “do a great job” but “the problem is we have the wrong model”.

With his “new model”, he claimed inmates completing literacy and numeracy courses would “more than double” to 1840 a year while inmates doing VET courses would increase by a fifth.

Federation Organiser Rob Long debunked the claims, saying Mr Elliott planned to employ so few teachers that the results he talked about lacked credibility.

“We have information that the tender contract for the delivery of education and training will be for 40,300 hours a year,” Mr Long said.

“The indicative sum of teaching hours this year is 89,474. This points to a drop of 49,174 teaching contact hours — a 55 per cent cut in hours — in the new model.

“How will the Minister manage a doubling of results when the workforce is going to be halved?”

Mr Long challenged Mr Elliott’s accusation that the teachers’ 11 weeks of leave entitlement was “not efficient use of the potential hours available” and that it was important “to deliver year-round services”.

In fact, said Mr Long, following negotiations, Corrective Services teachers this year had been staggering their leave so that fully 50 weeks of the year were teaching weeks.

“There are complex reasons why prisoners might not be able to use learning facilities in gaol,” Mr Long pointed out. They include:

  • lockdowns: a shortage of prison officers meant entire gaols or wings were sent into lockdown with prisoners confined to cells, deprived of access to classes. Recently there was a three-day lockdown at Silverwater CC due to insufficient prison guard numbers;
  • gaol employment: all inmates had to work and this impeded access to education, especially when there was a rush to finish contracted work;
  • rehabilitation programs: a high number of prisoners have drug and alcohol dependency and violent behaviour and attend programs to identify and resolve these problems. Programs range from 50 to 100-plus hours for medium to high-intensity risk behaviour. There are also programs for mental illness, sex offending etc. All these erode time available for education;
  • embarrassment: prisoners have low literacy and numeracy skills (two-thirds have writing and numeracy skills lower than a 15-year-old) and are reluctant to display this weakness in a tough gaol environment by signing up for classes. “I knew many guys who were young, even into their thirties, who couldn’t read, and embarrassment was a big factor in them not taking up classes,” former inmate John Killick confirmed (see his full story below).

Mr Long said the most rational and efficient action the Corrections Minister could take was to fill current vacancies in teacher and prison officer posts and increase the number of identified Aboriginal teaching positions.

In parliament, MP Dib said MPs “should not kid themselves for a moment that [the Baird government’s plan] was not simply about cost-cutting and lowering the standards for education delivery”. The government was inflicting this policy on the “most vulnerable” people in society.

News emerged last month that a computerised system would be installed to test prisoners before they attend classes and that external private providers would assess writing skills.

Fed Rep at Wellington CC, Janet Smith, warned online testing would not accurately gauge writing skills, where inmates were more vulnerable, than with reading and numeracy skills.

The computerised tests suggest a higher level of literacy than prisoners actually possess, which in turn could reduce services.

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Gaol system creates learning shortage: ex-inmate

Former inmate John Killick has a view on why few prisoners receive an education in gaol and it differs from Corrections Minister David Elliott’s expressed opinion that teachers are to blame, allegedly withholding service in order to take a lot of holidays.

The minister’s attempts to blame teachers for education problems follow criticism of the education participation rate in NSW prisons being only 33 per cent. “An issue of concern is the unmet need for education,” the Inspector of Custodial Services said in a report, Full House: The Growth of the Inmate Population in NSW (April 2015).

Mr Killick endorsed Organiser Rob Long’s statement that lockdowns – when prisoners are locked in their cells for long periods due to guard shortages – were a major factor in why they don’t attend classes.

In addition to that, “quite often, the education section is shut down because they’ve got to have an officer there and they haven’t got enough to go around”, Mr Killick added.

He said prisoners with the lowest levels of education were also too embarrassed to register for classes, fearing victimisation in that violent environment. This is a huge problem as two out of three inmates lack functional language, literacy and numeracy.

“I met guys even in their thirties who couldn’t read or write,” Mr Killick said. “When you show them something they’ll pretend to read it. They’re embarrassed.”

Mr Killick said prisoners in different gaol wings were not allowed to mix and so only one wing at a time could be let into classrooms with the rest being deprived of education at those times. He gave an example of a correctional centre with separate wings for Indigenous, Middle Eastern-background, Islander, protection and strict protection prisoners.

“To get to education every day in Goulburn is almost impossible,” Mr Killick said. “They might manage twice a week.”

The competing needs of employment cut into learning time. “The focus on gaols is on work. They don’t encourage education. They want you in a job,” said Mr Killick, who served time at Silverwater CC and was then sent to Goulburn after being recaptured after a helicopter jailbreak. He left prison on parole last year.

He said inmates would lose confidence and trust in the people the Corrections Minister will choose to employ as “teachers” in prisons – for-profit company trainers who are not required to have qualifications unlike the highly trained and experienced teachers currently employed.

“Teaching is in their DNA,” he said of the current teachers. “I can’t see clerks being like that” (many teaching positions are to be re-classified as clerk positions in Mr Elliott’s “new model” of prison education).