Pathways of learning for employment within a correctional centre: the remote Aboriginal experience

28 Jun 2016

The Northern Territory’s Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has developed a number of initiatives that engage inmates in formal employment training. This agenda is reflected in the ‘Sentenced to a Job’ initiative and through the Berrimah Construction Services (BCS) program, formerly known as BIITEBUILD. As a partnership between Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and DCS, the BCS program provides a live–work learning environment where inmates are involved in the construction of correctional facilities.

The case study discussed in this report was undertaken in 2014 and focuses on the learning experiences and aspirations of five inmates involved in the BCS program and of a further five who were not involved in this program or undertaking activities within the broader Sentenced to a Job initiative. All inmates in this study were Aboriginal men coming from the (remote) Katherine region and were classified as low security by DCS. A case study methodology was used, with qualitative methods applied to gain a deep understanding of the learning experiences and aspirations of inmates.

The study was guided by the question: How do differing learning experiences through the prison influence employment and other aspirations? A thematic analysis of the data found five key themes. The first, reflection as learning, highlights how incarceration provided the necessary space and time for valuable learning through self-reflection. Formal and structured learning opportunities, while valued in the prison, were peripheral to opportunities for ‘clear thinking’. The second theme, interactive learning, brings to the fore the process of learning for surviving in prison and the instrumental role of other incarcerated family members in this shared process. The third theme to emerge related to the values derived from work. Inmates involved in the BCS program identified themselves as having a work ethos prior to their engagement in the program. The program helped them maintain a work identity and provided a routine supportive of employment practices. In contrast, the inmates not involved in the BCS program did not have an established identity as ‘worker’, nor did the activities they undertook in the prison support identity transitions. The fourth theme, prison as a vehicle for employment, challenges the notion of incarceration as a barrier to employment through highlighting inmates’ perceptions of its enabling qualities. The final theme, aspiring beyond reality, captures the fact that inmates simply wanted a good life. They wanted to be with family, to be on country, to engage with Elders and children, to strengthen and share culture, to reinforce their Aboriginality and, for some, to get a job. However, alcohol abuse patterns and the difficulty of overcoming associated dysfunction were insurmountable for the inmates in the study.

The study concludes that the BCS program was perceived by those involved as valuable. Incarceration provided the opportunity for valued learning, although this learning may not have been the intended learning outcomes or attributable to formal or structured programs. The study further concludes that postrelease supports, which include rehabilitative programs in community, together with a proactive and supportive parole environment, are necessary and well overdue.

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