Jailing the poor helps NT manage economy


p2150-Camp-prisonersThe Territory’s rising prison population has served as a long-term mechanism for managing the economy, according to a Charles Darwin University academic who will speak at a national conference in Alice Springs next week.
The observation by CDU’s Northern Institute Research Associate Dr Don Zoellner is based in part on an analysis of Territory budgets since self-government in 1978.
Dr Zoellner said he compared the dollars allocated to justice with those given to vocational education and training, in a study designed to clarify the competing priorities of the policy-making process.
“The justice budget was typically double that of the VET budget until the mid-1990s when it began to increase dramatically,” Dr Zoellner said.
“The VET budget has remained stagnant at about $100 million per year since then, but the justice budget has increased to more than $600 million.
Dr Zoellner said the evidence suggested that when it came to dealing with disadvantaged people, the Territory had shown a preference for imprisoning citizens at one of the highest rates in the world, rather than increasing their access to vocational education and training linked to employment.
“A practice we might call ‘prisonfare’ has increasingly replaced welfare as a policy option for governments to manage those who are economically disadvantaged,” he said.
p2139-Don-Zoellner“This case study shows that ‘prisonfare’ has achieved a dominant policy position when compared to training policy in the Northern Territory.”
He said it was a non-partisan activity, not associated with a particular government or political party.
“My analysis shows it hasn’t made a difference who was in power. The pattern has been embraced by successive Territory governments even with the repeal of mandatory sentencing.”
Dr Zoellner (pictured) said his observations fitted a model proposed by sociologist Loic Wacquant, a French-American theorist who contends that advanced liberal democracies dealt with people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in one of three ways: socialising, medicalising or penalising.
Dr Zoellner will explain his observations in “Competing interests – the rise and rise of prisonfare” at the John Strehlow Conference in Alice Springs on Wednesday 24 September.
– Contributed


  1. The prison population is overwhelmingly Aboriginal so Zoellner’s argument assumes that funding allocated to VET training is effective in leading to employment for Aboriginal people.
    There is no strong evidence that this is the case.
    There is growing evidence that the Aboriginal training industry is self serving and of little benefit to Aboriginal people. Twiggy Forrest has recently condemned it as training for training’s sake, as an end in itself that does not lead to employment. Please see my comments on the story about the lack of interest in vital courses at Batchelor.
    Many local Aboriginal people have endlessly completed training courses qualifying them for all sorts of jobs that they cannot actually perform.
    For example, there are dozens of qualified Aboriginal teachers, almost all of whom are not employed in the role.
    So if the funding allocated to VET actually doesn’t lead to much increased employment for Aboriginal people you can’t argue that VET is an alternative to expenditure on prisons.
    Zoellner’s argument is “politically correct” but doesn’t hold water.
    Nevertheless, his argument should hold true and it is a national disgrace that it doesn’t. What needs to change is the training industry.


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