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Punishment, Employment, and Prison Dollars in the Top End

Peter is tanned, tattooed and wearing a high-vis shirt. He looks a lot like the other construction workers, except he’s currently serving a 12-year sentence.

by Emilia Terzon
24 July 2014, 4:41am

“I was very nervous on my first day. I felt like a kid starting out at a new school,” says Peter of his introduction to the Sentenced To A Job program. All photos by the author.

Peter is tanned, tattooed and wearing a high-vis shirt. He looks a lot like the other construction workers, except he’s currently serving a 12-year sentence. It’s his fourth day on the job. “I was very nervous on my first day. I felt like a kid starting out at a new school,” he says. It was also physically sickening to leave Darwin’s maximum security Berrimah Prison after five years behind bars. “They call it gate fever. You’ve been stuck in jail for so long. You’re institutionalized.”

After pushing through nerves and a boring task of sorting washers from nuts, Peter relaxed into his first week at JMT Builders. “The boys I’m working with are good,” he says. Welding and driving plasterboard to the barge is infinitely more interesting than lifting weights, cleaning toilets and pacing the prison yard. This means the former prawn fisherman and oil rigger is starting to get back his sense of self-worth. “Working makes you feel not useless,” he says.

Overall, Peter is happy with his new role, and knows it was only possible through an unconventional prison work program called Sentenced To A Job. This is a scheme that could probably only be dreamed up in the Northern Territory: the prison capital of Australia. It’s a place with by far the highest incarceration rate in Australia at almost five times the national average. Almost 90 percent of territory’s prisoners are Aboriginal, and there’s a high youth incarceration rate that also affects this community.

Darwin’s maximum security Berrimah Prison

There are lots of reasons why the territory locks up a proportionally huge amount of its citizens. Historically, the Aboriginal population has struggled with crime and police discrimination. There has also been a bigger focus on domestic violence and child abuse since the Intervention in 2007 – a federal strategy that also had the adverse effect of massively driving up the incidence of traffic crimes. (This is because more police in Indigenous communities means more roadblocks to check cars for drugs, porno and booze, as well as driver’s licenses and registration.)

And putting people in jail is expensive. The Northern Territory has almost halved its corrections spend in the last few years, but it’s still got the highest per capita budget in the country at $363 versus the national average of $186. Not all of that money goes towards housing, feeding and rehabilitating inmates, and the territory actually has the lowest spend per prisoner in Australia. It’s therefore little surprise that the territory’s Darwin and Alice Springs jail conditions were described as “third world”in 2012.

Tough times call for tough measures, and now the Northern Territory’s government is trying to do things a little differently. Sentenced To A Job is one example of this. It’s a bit different to traditional inmate work programs, which are usually based around jobs inside prisons or supervised and unpaid community work. Since the program launched in early 2014, Sentence To A Job’s 100 participants have worked everywhere from fish markets to abattoirs and they earn at least minimum wage.

There is some fine print. For example, JMT Builders pays Peter $920 a week gross, but a chunk of that is automatically deducted. He pays income tax, a five per cent levy to NT Victims of Crime, and $25 prison board for every day that he clocks into work. Whatever’s leftover – about $600 – is held in a trust for when Peter’s released, bar some pocket money that he's allowed to spend inside Berrimah Prison’s vending machines. This means Peter could save up to $60,000 by the time he’s eligible for parole in 2017.

Sentence To A Job’s candidates are also regulated. Only low risk inmates are eligible, meaning it’s more likely that a drunk driver or drug dealer is serving Darwin fish and chips than a raging axe murderer. Peter had to prove himself through four years of cleaning, good behaviour, and manning the prison bus. The payoff challenges traditional concepts of hard time. He gets to leave jail, mingle with others and even drives the work car around Darwin to pick up supplies. He’s basically a regular construction worker, except he goes back to a cell after work.

“It’s not a good feeling going back to jail every night, but at least I’m doing something constructive,” says Peter. This is also the take of the territory’s Correctional Services Minister, John Elferink. “Compare them to somebody who’s a rack and stack prisoner, who’s shoved into a concrete block to do their time and then shown the front door. They’re just as unemployable as the day they went in,” he says. Elferink told VICE that his brainchild scheme is a proven way to rehabilitate offenders and give them more options, so they don’t re-offend when they leave prison.

John Ludbrock of JMT Builders

Peter’s boss John Ludbrock is also keen on fighting recidivism. “We try to run a socially responsible company,” he says.There’s also a business incentive. The Top End’s businesses grapple with labourers who turn up late, drunk or not at all. The region’s gas boom – led by conglomerate Inpex – hasn’t helped JMT’s 20 per cent retention rate. “We can’t compete with their salaries,” says Ludbrock. “I was more than happy to give somebody else a go, mainly because we were being let down by the general workforce. We figured we couldn’t do any worse.”

So far, Peter is proving himself at work. Ludbrock says it’s great to have a guaranteed worker who shows up on time and literally can’t pull a sickie. (Prison guards don’t exactly dole out excuse letters.) “It’s a privilege for Peter, not a right,” he says. Elferink says there are more benefits for taxpayers and the prison system’s productivity. “Ultimately, it’s an opt in program, but I can tell you that the structure of the prison system makes it a difficult choice, in the sense that we expect prisoners to contribute to themselves and their own futures,” he says.

Some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of an inmate in their workplace. Others simply aren’t sure about forcing prisoners to work, period. Elferink told VICE that he has no moral quandaries about his tough love approach. “What we’re doing inside out prisons is quite different. It’s quite unique.” He described a state of affairs that’s halfway between punishment and productivity. “In essence, I am commercialising the prison without privatising it,” he says.

This commercialisation is indicative of a corrections philosophy that’s gained momentum since the Country Liberal Party regained power in late 2012. Next year, Sentenced To A Job will be offered to more of the territory’s 1600 inmates. Elferink told VICE that his department is also mulling alternatives for juvenile inmates that don’t want to attend prison school. “That can be a complete pain in the derriere,” he says. “We are currently exploring the capacity for kids who don’t want to do education to go into a work environment.”

More adult prisoners will also be put to work or educated when the Darwin Correctional Precinct opens in August. The DCP is a big deal in the Top End. It’s expansive grounds feature community style living and an internal workplace for incarcerated tradies.The media calls it a “super prison”, although Elferink prefers “Prison Mahal”. “The Taj Mahal is a spectacular palace in India and this is what you would call a spectacular building,” he says. (This isn’t a compliment: the last Labor government commissioned the $1 billion facility.)

After the DCP opens, the 35-year-old “third world” Berrimah Prison will be emptied of prisoners, which everybody agrees is well overdue.“Berrimah Prison’s a bit rundown. Everything really is pretty putrid and it’s very hot,” says Peter. Elferink says he’d like to “mothball” the old facility. In reality, it will be renovated and repurposed. There are rumours that some areas will be used for juvenile detention, but the territory’s government says it’s still exploring its options.

For now, the government has confirmed that Berrimah Prison’s low security accommodation will be turned into an Alcohol Mandatory Treatment (AMT) facility.The fact that a gross abandoned prison will be converted into a rehabilitation clinic highlights a bigger picture in the territory. AMT is another new government initiative that aims to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour. It’s managed by the territory’s Health Department, but the word “mandatory” makes it contentiously similar to corrections.

Essentially, a person ends up in AMT when they’re taken into police custody three times in two months for being publicly drunk. This doesn’t exactly mean one too many beers at the pub. Alcohol abuse is a problem in a very specific part of the community, which means this policy effectively targets Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s Principal Legal Officer, Jonathan Hunyor, says MAT is based on ideology and forcing somebody to quit boozing doesn’t work.“It isn’t based on any evidence of what actually works, which is always a bad place to start,” he says.

Hunyor was more appreciative of other programs like Sentenced To A Job, but said his territory needs to focus more on post-prison care and the root of the reasons why people are landing themselves in Northern Territory prison at such high rates. “If you really wanted to sentence somebody to a job, then you wouldn’t send them to jail,” he says. His ideas include cutting out mandatory sentences for traffic offenders. “Often, people are doing short-term sentences and they should be doing things like community work or home detention,” he says. Academics like Anthony Pyne have similar proposals to reduce Indigenous over-representation in NT prisons.

For now, whether you’re a dodgy driver or wife beater, the life of a Northern Territory prisoner is changing. Peter can’t tell VICE what he did to end up in the wasteland of Berrimah Prison, although he’s pretty clear about his regrets. “Some people make bad choices. In my case, real bad choices,” he says. “But once you’ve done part of your sentence, you need an opportunity to prove yourself and show people that you’re not all bad.”


Northern Territory
Vice Blog
Sentenced To A Job
prison work scheme