Prisoners for hire Down Under

Prisoners in Australia are being sent out to work at supermarkets, laundries and mines under a controversial scheme which aims to provide a pool of low-wage workers while allowing inmates to improve their job prospects.

Under the scheme, which is being run in the Northern Territory, prisoners can earn about A$16 (S$20) an hour. They do not get to keep the entire salary, with 5 per cent going into a fund for victims, A$125 a week for their lodgings and A$60 a week for spending money. The rest is put into an individual trust fund and paid out after their release.

The territory's government, which calls the scheme "Sentenced to a Job", says prisoners have been hired as waiters, labourers, screen printers, plumbers, retail staff and laundry workers. The public and private sectors are allowed to hire the inmates, who could have as much as A$20,000 saved up by the time they leave prison.

"Prisoners gain the skills to seek, gain and retain employment upon release (and) are taught the importance of work in our society," says a description of the scheme on the territory's website.

"Aside from the benefits to the lives of the prisoners and the NT (Northern Territory) community, employing prisoners can be of significant benefit to a business' bottom line."

However, the scheme came under fire after some prisoners were sent to work in a remote salt mine, prompting claims of "slave labour". The low-security prisoners stay in a camp about 250km from Alice Springs and are trained to work at a potash project.

The territory's largest union, United Voice, says the workers are being exploited and underpaid, and that the scheme risks taking jobs from miners. It notes the workers are paid less than half the market rate for salt miners, which is about A$35 an hour. "This is manipulating the system and exploiting people who have no say in what is going on," union secretary Matthew Gardiner told The Straits Times.

"There is now a cheap source of labour being brought into a very profitable area. Bigger multinationals may go the same way. It will create a market of cheap labour across the board," he added.

But the government says the inmates were sent to the mine because Rum Jungle Resources, which operates the mine, could not find other workers. Correctional Services Minister John Elferink said the scheme was proving worthwhile and was helping to fill jobs and boost the skills of inmates at zero cost to taxpayers.

Sex offenders and dangerous prisoners are excluded from the scheme. "I expect prisoners in the Northern Territory corrections system to work," he told ABC News. "If they are particularly good at what they do, then we reward them with full-time work outside the prisons."

The scheme has been welcomed by criminal justice experts, who say one of the main reasons former convicts go back to crime is a failure to find work. "It is a great idea," Professor Rick Sarre, from the University of South Australia, told The Straits Times. "Unemployment is one of the best predictors of people going straight back into jail.

They come out with a bag of clothes and some short-term housing and suddenly it all collapses and they have no income and they turn back to alcohol and drugs and crime."

The Northern Territory has by far the highest imprisonment rate in Australia, with about 826 prisoners per 100,000 adults; the national average is 168. Almost half of its prisoners - more than 1,300 and rising - are back in jail within two years of their release. The high rates have to do with the large Aboriginal population.

The territory has 212,000 people, of whom 57,000 are Aborigines. Prof Sarre said the scheme would be harder to run in the territory - with its vast distances and remote communities - but could potentially work "in any setting". "If it can work in a remote and indigenous setting, this would be a good reason to promote it," he said.

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