UTILISING prison labour in industry is not a new concept – Australia was founded on the hard work of convictsand with the current skills shortage affecting much of the country, inmate labour has been touted as a solution.
Australian corrective service departments run various commercial and industrial programs in correctional centres across each state, with more than 15,000 inmates currently working in a wide range of industries, including furnishing and carpentry, agriculture, automotive, metal fabrication, hospitality and textiles.
The programs not only provide offenders with the opportunity to gain nationally accredited qualifications, but research shows unemployment and lack of education can have a major impact on the likelihood of re-offending.
Revenue gained from these programs also helps to offset the cost of inmate rehabilitation to taxpayers.
Despite the benefits these programs can offer inmates, there have been concerns raised about the impact of Corrective Service programs for manufacturers, with claims that some schemes are under cutting private enterprise.
The Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland was in the spotlight recently with proposed plans to increase production of its water tank manufacturing project from 50 to 330 tanks a week.
Local manufacturers say that they may be forced to sack workers because they cannot compete with tanks being constructed by prisoners.
John Keane, MD of Superior Water Tanks says he has experienced an 80% decline in demand since July, and doesn’t believe there is a skills shortage as the government claims.
“When the project first started, no one thought it would be in competition with the private market. Now they are trying to increase production in an industry that is currently struggling,” Keane told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“No one really knows what impact this project will have on the local industry, but there needs to be more consultation between industry players and the government before any more projects like this goes ahead,” he said.
“No one in private enterprise should lose a job to a prisoner.”
According to Queensland Corrective Services (QCS) when they advertised tenders for the tank manufacturing project in May last year, research conducted by the Industry Capability Network Queensland, showed the water tank industry sector was unable to satisfy demand for tanks. However, a current downturn in demand has exacerbated the issue.
The Minister for Police, Corrective Services and Minister for Sport, Judy Spence, said QCS considered any impact on local businesses and jobs before it went ahead with the project.
“We are certainly not in the business of selling water tanks to the public. “We are supplying tanks to manufacturers as a result of a competitive tendering process,” Spence told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
She added that while prisoners are paid a small amount for their labour there are a large number of costs associated with using prisoners.
“Higher levels of training, supervision and security staff are required and productivity levels are lower. This means that a water tank manufactured by prisoners costs about the same to produce as a tank made by a private business,” she said.
QCS said the tender process was public, transparent and open to all interested companies, with Linpac Rotational Mouldings and Slimline Rainwater Tanks successfully gaining the contracts.
James Carruthers from Slimline Rainwater Tanks, said the project had been a worthwhile exercise for his company, who needed to expand their production of tanks as they had been experiencing a 24 week delay.
“We also felt that our tanks were the most suitable for the project as they involve extensive manual labour and the majority of the skills are easily grasped,” Curruthers said.
When asked if he would employ one of the inmates post release, he explained that the company already had.
“Upon the advice of the correctional officers and from our own experiences with the inmates, we had no hesitation in employing this person as he had already proved himself to be a hard worker with good problem solving skills.”
Curruthers added that he would “definitely recommend other companies get involved if the opportunity arises.”
Inside the razer wire
The NSW Department of Correctional Services through the Corrective Services Industries division (CSI) facilitates over 80 commercial businesses within the 36 correctional centres across the state.
CSI provides products and services for various industries both in the government and private sectors.
Rob Steer, Business Development Manager with CSI, says in order to enhance the success of post release employment, the programs simulate the conditions of an external business as much as possible. We run two working shifts a day, and while they work slightly reduced hours than an average person due to various considerations of being inside a correctional facility, we have found the greater the commercial intensity, the better the social outcome for the inmates,” Steer told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“These programs also help prisoner management inside the centres. If inmates are busy we find there is less disruption and a reduction of destructive behaviours often stemming from boredom and idealness.”
“In the skills shortage we are actually starting to provide a skilled labour force not just in terms of post release employment but also as subcontractors to companies that want to double their output without tripling their costs.”
Through CSI’s engineering program, inmates have produced everything from post office boxes and skips to security fencing and charity clothing bins, even working with the NSW Fire Brigade to design and manufacture fire trailers.
He said the programs are monitored by the Correctional Industries Consultative Council, which has been created to ensure the work environment of inmates meets OH&S requirements, they get practical skills and knowledge, encourage post release employment and to assure the community that operations of correctional industries in NSW do not unreasonably impact upon other Australian businesses and, in particular, jobs.