What price education in gaols?

Senior gaol educator Debbie Harris has been told her 22 years of helping prisoners build a better life have no place in tomorrow’s gaols. Here’s her story*  

Gaol, prison, correctional centre, big house, “inside” – these are just some of the words used to describe my workplace.  It’s not a glamorous place to work, I can assure you, but it’s challenging and rewarding.  I should know – I’ve been working here for over 22 years.

After all this time of doing my best for Corrective Services (CSNSW), helping to rehabilitate inmates, receiving numerous awards and being a manager of a dedicated team of professional teachers, I was told in May that I am soon to be made redundant.

Most education staff across the state’s correctional centres are to lose their jobs; it is heartbreaking.

A total of 138 education roles will be lost along with many years of experience and specialist knowledge. Clerk positions will replace the teachers with only one or two clerks in each centre.  These clerks will not need any education qualifications.

I have been fortunate to have worked in every Education unit position in our centre during my career, and now am a Senior Correctional Education Officer. I will finish my education career on a very low note later this year, according to the timeline of the proposed change management plan.

 In this plan there are no longer any SCEOs in centres but we can apply for a lower-level clerical role at a reduced pay rate. This role would be mainly data input, facilitating the access for the external providers to inmates and resources within the centre.  There won’t be any staff to supervise, no budgetary control, no management role.  Needless to say, I will not be applying.

During my years at Mannus Corrrectional Centre I have seen inmates come into the Education unit and whisper that they can’t read or write properly. Others have completed a program where they first learn to read a children’s storybook: we record them reading it onto a CD and then post the book and the CD home to their children so that they can listen to Dad read them a story.  The pride the inmate has in himself at this achievement is well worth seeing.

Our teachers work with students who want to learn new skills in horticulture, computers, preparation for looking for jobs, money matters, maths, reading, spelling, writing and workplace health and safety.  Research shows inmates who engage in adult education while incarcerated have a 10-15 per cent less risk of returning to gaol.

Under an MOU with TAFE we are able to offer a variety of TAFE courses that are relevant to the work inmates do in our centre and help prepare them for their release with relevant qualifications.

For Minister David Elliott to say in his press release that education “will be outsourced to specialist training organisations after a review found the current system in not sufficiently focused on job skills” shows he has been misinformed.  All we do is prepare inmates for jobs by improving their basic skills, offering vocational skills and working through how to apply for jobs after their release. 

Why are we allowing a disenfranchised group, the most damaged by our systems and educational experiences to be deemed less deserving of a good, well-rounded education provided by qualified teachers in every centre?

* Read Debbie Harris’s passionate article in full in Education, out on August 22. Debbie is Vice President of the NSW Teachers Federation’s Corrective Services Teachers Association. She has written on the government’s axeing of jail educator jobs on her blog www.debs-world.com  and here at Buzzfeed.

Image caption:
Teachers at Mannus CC in a new classroom they renovated with help from inmates and staff. Front row, from left: Debbie Gadd, Debbie Harris, Daragh McCallum (now resigned), Karen Daniel; back row, from left:  Alan Bateup, Carmel Smith, Mark McCrone

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