Life after prison for Indigenous Australians: VET training and employment pathways

Life after prison for Indigenous Australians: VET training and employment pathways

Weld Australia CEO Geoff Crittenden writes about Australia’s prison population and providing employment opportunities to the disenfranchised.

Australia’s prison population continues to grow at a rate that is four times that of the general population.

According to the most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from 30 June 2020 to 30 June 2021, the total number of Australian prisoners increased by 5 per cent to 42,970. Australia’s overall imprisonment rate also increased by 5 per cent from 205 to 214 prisoners per 100,000 adult population. This rate well exceeds that found across countless nations, from Scandinavia, Western Europe, Canada and the United Kingdom, through to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, China and New Zealand.

Alarmingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners make up 30 per cent of all prisoners in Australia. And yet, in the 2021 Census, just 3.2 per cent of the total population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

In the 12 months to 30 June 2021, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners increased by 8per cent to total 13,039 people. Not surprisingly then, their imprisonment rate also increased by 5 per cent to 2,412 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult population.

Let’s compare those figures: 214 prisoners versus 2,412 prisoners per 100,000 adult population.

Clearly, something doesn’t add up.

As at 30 June 2021, the median age was 32.8 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners. When comparing the prison population to the general adult population, prisoners are much younger – 2 in 3 (65 per cent) prisoners were under 40, compared with about 2 in 5 (40 per cent) in the general adult population.

According to the latest statistics, on an average night, there were 819 young people in detention, most of whom (at 83 per cent) were aged 10-17. Half (or 410 of the 819) of all these young people were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. And yet, Indigenous Australians make up just 6 per cent of the Australian population aged 10-17. What is causing this disparity? Is it endemic institutionalised racism?

And, possibly most concerning, once Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners enter the correctional system, finding their way out can be tough. The latest report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that 78 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners had experienced prior adult imprisonment.

All these statistics paint a clear picture: our prison population is rapidly expanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders account for an overwhelmingly disproportionate percentage of prisoners, and they are increasingly younger people and reoffenders.

So, then what is being done by our governments to help alleviate the situation?

Closing the gap

According to the latest figures, the Australian Government directly spends around 1.5 times as much on Indigenous people on a per-capita basis compared to the general population, amounting to $14.7 billion per annum. However, given the alarming statistics cited above, it remains to be seen whether this funding is being directed in the most effective fashion.

With the National Agreement on Closing the Gap coming into effect on 27 July 2020, it was hoped that government funding might be reallocated to the initiatives where it was needed most.

The National Agreement sets out ambitious targets designed to change the way governments work to improve life outcomes experienced by Indigenous Australians. The two most pertinent targets are:

  • Target 6: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70 per cent.
  • Target 11: By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10-17 years) in detention by at least 30 per cent.

Over two years on and, according to the Closing the Gap Implementation Tracker, the vast majority of commitments are either delayed, or ‘not reportable’. Meanwhile, the incarceration and recidivism rates of Indigenous Australians increases year-on-year.

Existing funding and programs are not closing the gap – in fact, they seem to be exacerbating it. Indigenous Australians are not receiving the education or the support they need to improve their own life outcomes.

Rehabilitation and training programs

Australia needs practical rehabilitation and vocational education and training (VET) programs that can help alleviate recidivism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

A 2015 study by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found only 38 per cent of prison entrants surveyed had attained year 11 or 12. Just 20 per cent of Indigenous entrants had completed the same level of education, and Indigenous dischargees were more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous counterparts to have only reached year 8 or below.

The introduction of VET programs as part of prisoner rehabilitation offers opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to reduce this disadvantage, increasing the likelihood of successful reintegration into the community and reducing the risk of reoffending.

A recent study confirmed that participation in VET whilst incarcerated helps prisoners to remain custody free post-release. In fact, prisoners who successfully completed VET were 60 per cent more likely to remain custody free at two years post-release; and 78 per cent more likely to remain custody free at five years post-release.

VET and rehabilitative efforts are generally successful in reducing recidivism. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that without rehabilitation, sanctions and incarceration alone may result in increased rates of reoffending.

VET Centre of Excellence in Welding at HM Prison Langi Kal Kal

Given the proven success of VET programs for prisoner rehabilitation, in 2022, Corrections Victoria expanded the VET Centre of Excellence model to deliver Fusion Welding to ISO 9606 certification standard to complement their Metal Fabrication industry at Langi Kal Kal Prison.

Federation University delivers the training program with the support of Weld Australia and on-site prison industry staff.

Augmented reality training was introduced to expand the welding skills of the prisoner learners to meet international standards.

As part of the program, augmented reality training was introduced to expand the welding skills of the prisoner learners to meet international standards. A welding workshop sits alongside the augmented reality training room so that participants can work on projects to use and practice their welding skills in the physical as well as virtual environments.

To participate in the program, prisoners are invited to submit an Expression of Interest and then selected through an interview process. Up to eight participants can be accommodated in the intensive 14-week program.

Gaining and maintaining employment

The ability to gain and maintain employment post-release is equally as important as training when it comes to the successful reintegration of former prisoners into the community. And yet, few ex-prisoners are able to find meaningful work. Prisoners often come from a socio-economic group that already faces difficulties in gaining employment.

They generally have high levels of drug and alcohol misuse, high levels of mental health issues, and poor work histories. Imprisonment adds to this mix, making it even more difficult for prisoners to find a job. Combine all this with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders heritage, and securing meaningful work becomes near impossible.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare fewer than 1 in 4 (22 per cent) of former prisoners nationwide report that they have paid employment organised to start within two weeks of release from prison. This can also be exacerbated at times by parole conditions that make full-time employment more difficult to manage.

Langi Kal Kal Prison inmates learn Fusion Welding to ISO 9606 certification standard.

The VET Centre of Excellence model links participating prisoners with prospective employers and pre and post-release support service providers. These connections provide prisoners with sustainable pathways to employment and support to reintegrate to society post- release.

Australia’s skilled welder shortage has reached critical levels. According to the results of our 2022 Member Survey, when asked what they are most concerned about, 64 per cent of senior managers cited lack of skilled staff in an extremely constrained recruitment market.

With a considerable volume of work being onshored in the wake of international supply chain disruptions, most Australian fabrication companies are so strapped for skilled welders that they are working at anywhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their full capacity.

They are being forced to turn down jobs because they simply don’t have the manpower to complete the work. This is having a major impact on production and causing delays throughout downstream industries including building and construction, mining, oil and gas, and manufacturing.

Industry is already at capacity, with Weld Australia’s members turning away projects because they cannot find enough welders to complete the work. We have known for some time now that Australia will have a shortfall of at least 70,000 welders by 2030.

Alarmingly, this projected shortfall of welders does not account for Australia’s move from carbon fuelled power generation to a renewable energy system. To combat this skills shortage, innovative training solutions are required, like the VET Centre of Excellence.

These types of practical, long-term training and rehabilitation programs are so important. They equip prisoners with knowledge and give them practical skills that they can use on release. They help give prisoners purpose, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. They build self-esteem and respect, and give prisoners the confidence to change their own life outcomes and build a successful future, particularly as post- release employment as a welder is almost guaranteed.

We need a justice system that acknowledges the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and provides for that in delivering a fair equitable justice system. Australia needs practical, long-term measures and funding for VET and training programs in correctional facilities, as well as alternatives to prison, and real support for people on remand.

Taking this a step further, we need STEM programs in schools designed to encourage Indigenous Australians into VET employment pathways, and away from the prison system. The New South Wales Government has invested heavily in Weld Australia’s Advanced Manufacturing School Outreach Program. Why can’t other state governments, or the Federal Government, invest in this program for Indigenous communities nationally? Why aren’t we giving Indigenous children the same opportunities to learn and access training?

I urge Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney MP, to support the funding of VET education, training and employment pathways for Indigenous Australians—both within prisons and the broader community.

Reallocating even a small portion of the $14.7 billion spent every year could offer huge benefits for Indigenous Australians and industry. With a looming welder shortage in Australia, secure employment in the fabrication industry can give Indigenous Australians the power and confidence to improve their own life outcomes.

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