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HomeIssue 49Sentenced to a job and a future – Elferink's visionary initiative

Sentenced to a job and a future – Elferink's visionary initiative

Mainstream work paid at award rates to replace mindless tasks now performed by prisoners.
UPDATE DEC 19: The scheme as it is intended by Minister Elferink is “a good concept” for employers and Aboriginal employees, but many obstacles will need to be dealt with, says Chamber of Commerce Executive Officer Kay Eade.
People from the bush have little idea about the demands of a full-time job: “It’s not like in the movies,” is how local school girls described it who are taking part in a work familiarisation program run in part by the chamber.
Ms Eade says ordinarily it would be expected that intensive mentoring would be provided to workers who’d never held down a job before, and few employers could provide this.
However, she concedes that for prisoners, employed under strict conditions over a period of one or two years of their gaol term, unauthorised absenteeism would not be an issue, and the sustained exposure to mainstream work may create the necessary work ethic.
She says short time mentoring is a “waste of time” in her experience.
Ms Eade says problems are likely to start when the prisoners are released and relatives are making demands.
Workers keen to succeed in mainstream work do best in mining camps to which outsiders do not have access.
“If you are sentenced in the NT you are sentenced to a job and a future.”
This is the motto for ground breaking prison reform being introduced by NT Attorney General John Elferink (pictured at right) who is also responsible for correctional services.
It will give inmates the opportunity of taking on paid work “inside the prison system or beyond its boundary,” says Mr Elferink.
“To that end we will advance a system by which prisoners may well be expected to engage in work before they leave the prison system.
“Preliminary trials are under way, and further reports of success or otherwise will be made public.
“We are being very cautious, but there are encouraging signs with two prisoners placed so far.”
Mr Elferink declined to give further details but it is understood the inmate workers are being paid at award rates – the money going into a trust account until release – and will have the opportunity of being engaged at their level of skills.
Mr Elferink is the Member for Port Darwin, the Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Correctional Services.
The former police officer entered politics in a surprise win in the previously ultra-safe Labor seat of MacDonnell, south of Alice Springs, which he held from 1997 to 2005.
He embarked on correspondence studies through Monash University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts at the end of 1997.
In 2008 he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from the University of New England and was admitted to the bar in October 2009.
He won the seat of Port Darwin in 2008 from ALP incumbent Kerry Sacilotto.
Minister Elferink’s initiative is visionary and deserves absolute bi-partisan and public support. If it succeeds it could not only ease the crisis in the NT prison system, but be the first meaningful step in decades to reduce our explosive racial tensions. It could well become a template for prison reform world-wide, and eradicate some popular myths about employing Aboriginal people.
Given the chronic shortage of staff in the NT economy, what would employers say to this offer: “I can get you someone who is sober, rested, clean, well dressed, punctual, reliable and available for at least two years.” The answer is likely to be: “I’ll take 20.”
No doubt the workers would be drawn, at least initially, from the cohort non-violent offenders. Some 400 of the 1400 people overcrowding our jails are doing time for traffic offences, and only around 200 have committed serious violent crimes.
More than 90% have been in jail before, or will be again, under the current regime.
Many among the present prison population – around 80% Aboriginal – would be exposed to a mainstream work experience for the first time in their lives.
The mates, skills, work habits and self-esteem they would be acquiring would be invaluable for their life after release, including keeping the job they’re in.
The urban myth about black employment in the mainstream may well be laid to rest as well, as we find out that not race, but reliability is what really counts in getting a job.
We may also retire the notion that it will take generations to make Aborigines work-ready, a notion that has served well a growing contingent of social workers and underachieving NGOs while doing little for their clients many of whom have a string of training tickets but no job.
Who knows, we may even stop regarding Aborigines as necessarily being welfare dependent, and begin to see them as the descendants of a tough, resilient and resourceful race, which prevailed in one of the world’s harshest environments, who created the oldest surviving culture – and the sky’s the limit for them, as much as is it for all of us.


  1. At present the only hope of finding a job for many men on town camps is to commit a crime, go to jail and be assigned to a work crew. They get paid at about $35/week I think, but all their accommodation, food etc is covered. Or go on CDEP for an extra $0.66/hour above the dole, while their mates laugh at them for standing around in the hot sun and cleaning up their neighbors’ yard. Some people I know are so desperate for work they would probably consider Elferink’s option. Before he proceeds he should state clearly what sort of crimes you need to commit to qualify for various employment opportunities. Will petty crime lead to low paid menial work, more serious crimes perhaps lead to better paid work. If I wanted to get a job say as an expert consultant on indigenous culture and affairs, what do I need. Murder perhaps, assault, or would drunk in a public place be sufficient?

  2. An excellent opportunity for incarcerated people to contribute their own wealth and well-being. This was an idea I suggested some years ago with prisoners being sub-contracted to local tradespeople so that home refurbishments and new builds could happen faster.
    There are a lot of skilled people out in the gaol and it seems a shame that those skills are not put to better use. The market garden out there could also supply fresh, organic food to the gaol provided other “suppliers” don’t get block the idea.
    These people are part of the community just like all of us. If they are allowed to contribute whilst incarcerated, they can generate income, feel better about themselves and work harder to stay out of the place once released.
    There are a significant number of Aboriginal people already working in full-time employment across government, non-government and private sectors. They could help form part of mentoring process associated with this initiative. Perhaps even politicians could lead by example.

  3. It’s nothing new to have prisoners work, some inside of and some outside detention centres. A significant impediment to providing useful, worthwhile work for prisoners however, is that NT Correctional Services has not been able to produce goods or services that compete with private enterprise.
    If the government would waive that policy, it would go a long way to improving the skills of prisoners and help fund the training and production activities that currently draw heavily on limited budget and resources.
    The competition provided may also encourage some of our local businesses to lift their game. I hope Mr Elferink follows through with his plan.

  4. I would also like to congratulate John Elferink on this initiative and agree with Erwin that it truly deserves bi-partisan support. We have to reduce the pressure on our prisons and significantly reduce the massive resource we seem to continually pour into them with no real outcome except bigger and better prisons.
    However, we also have the opportunity to intervene (with youth particularly) long before they even enter the prison system.
    I have always said there are flaws in the Correctional Services community work order program. Not with the staff or legal people who do an amazing job in supporting these youth under particularly challenging circumstance but within the system itself.
    I see many young men and women in my workplace “doing community work” who are often – as Erwin says – being exposed to a real life work experience for the first time in their lives. Of course there are always those who don’t respond but for most it’s a character building experience that adds some structure, discipline and self responsibility to their lives.
    They have to be ready for work on time, wear work clothing and do their jobs but they also positively engage with staff, volunteers and visitors to our facility.
    However, once the court ordered hours are complete many of these young people are simply left to drop off the cliff with no support in developing life / work pathways or encouragement to take the next step to real employment.
    Many of these young people deal with lack of education and even knowledge of how to undertake even the most menial of skills. Unemployment, poor housing, social exclusion and dysfunctional lifestyles are just parts of their every day lives.
    Inevitably I see them back again in a few months for a repeat performance. We should intervene at this point with positive preventative strategies to keep them OUT of the prison system.
    I know work orders do just that but we have to look beyond completion the mandatory hours and continue support into real training and proper jobs.
    There are several CWO participants from the past few years that I would gladly employ in my organisation had we had the financial capability to do so, which – as a self funded community based museum – we do not.

  5. Minister Elferink should be congratulated for having a go at pushing this envelope, but I fear his good intentions may be doomed.
    Previous NT Corrections ministers have proposed similar initiatives, but come up against legal and industrial relations impediments, public prejudice, political risks considered by their cabinets and parties to be too large to bear, as well as stiff resistance from other vested interests (not least from the prison guards, some of whose arguments are better than others).

  6. If gainful employment is one key ingredient to a better, more rounded and productive life (a view I support), and if a basic skill set is necessary to find that employment, this scheme could prove beneficial to those eligible for it.
    It’s a funny old world we’ve created when one way out of the poverty trap of welfare dependency is to go to jail for a spell to acquire work experience, and then head for a mining camp or some other isolated place where relatives and peer groups are unable to humbug an aspiring person down to a lowest common denominator.
    I wish Minister Elferink well with this. Something is needed to break the cycle that gives us men and women who simply do not know how to work.
    Inspiring them to want to is another matter.

  7. Liz Martin (Posted December 18, 2012 at 9:38 pm) raises some important considerations in relation to community work orders.
    One question: could Elferink’s proposal also encompass ways to enable release of short-term non-violent prisoners, as well as the longer term inmates, to attend intensive courses in “real world” literacy, numeracy, life skills and other areas of individual education needs as identified by Liz?
    At present short term prisoners are not permitted to engage in the limited courses that are offered within the prisons. As short term, non-violent prisoners comprise the vast majority of the prison population, this rule constitutes an enormous lost opportunity for constructive educational and other interventions.
    Those damned “social workers” have long been advocating for short-term prisoners to be allowed to take part in education and life skills courses within the prison, but the prison managers and staff have resisted this on various grounds.
    Although many prisoners (like many unemployed non-prisoners) may have completed a lot of “training courses”, they often remain under-educated in some of the basic knowledge and formal attainments that are fundamental to undertaking successful apprenticeships or much other “real world” training; these education shortfalls often include some of the most crucial skills needed for holding down jobs.
    In recent years some highly qualified assessors of skills such as literacy, numeracy, computer use and spoken English comprehension and use have become available to community organisations in Central Australia, and amassed a body of useful data.
    Trainees and job-seekers tested by these very experienced, professionally qualified practitioners have been consistently found to have only low to mid-primary school level skills in a number of key areas. Those assessed include people who have previously taken part in the many and much ballyhooed “training courses” provided by or through a number of well-reimbursed but often under-achieving private sector job services and job skills providers.
    A lot can be achieved in a brief time by highly skilled intensive teaching of literacy, numeracy, oracy and technacy skills to motivated adults if they are able to study in supportive circumstances. If short-term prisoners could be hooked into starting to improve their education via attending external courses while they are “inside”, in many cases this could be continued on their exit from prison, and provide an extra incentive for them to try to keep out of trouble.

  8. Understand presently short term prisoners may not be permitted to engage in limited courses offered within the prisons.
    Society ignores best available time for these offenders to be counseled to recognize, to learn, and to start addressing their repairable disadvantages which lead to their criminality.
    IF societies aims to reduce time needed in prison, less money spent on prisons, than changes to offenders behavior when they leave prison is where we need focus.
    Ability to start courses whilst short term in prison, enables earlier releases on paroles conditional upon continued progress in equivalent courses.
    For many Centrelink will need be involved.


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