Peter Close is a man on a mission.
As one of Corrections Employment Placement Coordinators he is out and about in Southland, talking to employers and matching people with offending histories with employers looking for staff and willing to give someone another chance.
“I am really impressed by the enthusiasm with which local employers are welcoming Corrections, and then these new employees into their organisations,” says Peter. “A large part of my role is matching employers and employees.”
So far this year, Peter has secured 39 positions for prisoners and community offenders in the Southland and Central Otago Corrections’ district.
These employers come from across a wide range of industries. One week, for example, Peter found jobs for four job seekers: one as a forecourt attendant, one on a fishing boat and two on a farm at Winton.
Prison industry training in the South Island’s five prisons includes construction, engineering, horticulture, carpentry, automotive and small motors, dairy and agriculture, painting, plastering, cooking and catering.
“Many of the men we are placing have real work skills, qualifications and experience,“ he says. “Some had these skills and qualifications prior to prison or offending, but many have gained these by working and learning in prison industries.
“After gaining their qualifications, work skills and aptitudes, all they need is the opportunity to work, to mix with positive people and earn money to support themselves and their families. These employers offer a life changing opportunity for these men.”
The majority of the men are on sentence with Community Corrections, or have been released from Invercargill Prison or Otago Corrections Facility. They have served sentences for wide ranging crimes, from driving and drug convictions to sexual and violence offences.
“In addition to trade and industry training, many have spent time in prison gaining literacy skills, so this may be the first time that employment has been a real option for them. Many employers also comment on their new employee’s work ethic, loyalty and keenness to work and learn.
“I am working with offenders who want to leave their offending in their past”, says Peter. “They have been involved in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes and had time to reflect on the path they were travelling and make plans for their futures.”
In the community or in prison, many offenders complete health and safety training. This is something employers appreciate and one less thing they need to do to get new starters work ready.
Other employers have roles that mean they will need to train new employees in the required skills for the job.
Over the past eight years, Margaret and Owen* have employed around 20 prisoners, parolees and community offenders on a seasonal basis for around 12 weeks doing “stooking”, specialist harvest work for quality animal feed.
“The job is outdoor, physical, skilled work,” says Margaret. “We need people who are reliable, physically able, trustworthy and capable of quickly picking up a new skill. The men we have employed through Corrections meet these requirements.”
Through the work on the farm, the men are learning good work habits, working hard and getting the job done. “Often the men continue to work for us for a couple of years, one left us recently after many years of regular part time work for a fulltime position,” Margaret says.
The relationship benefits everyone. The offenders gain new skills and confidence in their abilities, a proven work history and a reference; the employer gets someone who wants to work and prove themselves; and Corrections gets the opportunity to ease offenders back into the workforce while still providing a support role if required.
“We had a few trepidations at first,” says Margaret, “and then everyone settled down. The men we are employing come with boundaries and the support of Corrections. They know what their conditions are and we have Corrections there if we, or they, need any support. We feel we can be more at risk from someone we employ off the street.”
Margaret says she and Owen feel strongly that people in prison and those on release, need to work. “You can lock people up and throw away the key, but that doesn’t make them safer and it doesn’t give them the opportunity to live crime free.
“I think the initiative to get offenders into work in a dedicated way is really important for the community to get involved in stopping reoffending.”
Research shows a strong correlation between employment and reduced offending in the community and Peter is thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to make a life changing difference for those he works with and getting to know local business owners across the district.
”It’s great to see people being given the chance to provide for their families, and themselves,” he says. “Yes, they have a criminal record, but they also have a keenness to change their lives, to work, to support their families, to use and develop employable skills and to positively contribute to their workplace, family and the community.
“These employers are not only getting keen, skilled workers, they are giving a person and their family a new start and, through supporting changes in people’s lives and life choices, making our communities happier and safer for everyone.”
* for privacy reasons, they prefer not to use their full names.
The Employment Placement Coordinator is a new district-based Corrections role created in last November. We also have Employment Placement Co-ordinators covering the Nelson, Marlborough & West Coast area and the greater Canterbury area and they are working alongside two Offender Recruitment Consultants who are based in Canterbury and Otago.
These five employment specialists place offenders into employment and offer in-work support for the employee and employer. They have strong relationships with businesses across the South Island.
According to Wikipedia, a stook, also referred to as a shock or stack, is an arrangement of sheaves of cut grain stalks placed so as to keep the grain-heads off the ground while still in the field and prior to collection for threshing. Stooked grain sheaves are typically wheat, barley and oats.