Regional prisoners turn lives around in the hope of finding meaningful employment after jail

In South Australia, male reoffending rates have dropped by more than 10 per cent in six years, meaning fewer men are returning to correctional services within two years of leaving jail.

Correctional officers believe agricultural programs offered in prisons are contributing to the drop in returning prisoners, some of whom have committed very serious crimes.

On the state’s Eyre Peninsula, Port Lincoln Prison is seeing many inmates turn their lives around.


Inmate Michael* hopes he will be one of the men leaving prison in the future, but for now he said studying farming practices had improved his everyday life at jail.

“It makes you feel human again; it makes you feel like you’re worth something again, not just another number,” Michael said. 

Drone shot of Lincoln prison
Inmates at the Port Lincoln Prison can study certificates and diplomas in horticulture and rural operations.(ABC News: Trent Murphy)

Michael has slowly progressed from maximum to low security, where he is now able to study courses that could set him up for future job opportunities.

He said he has had a lot of time to reflect on his life before coming to jail.

A man tends to a flower farm
The jail has recently starting selling to the flower market.(ABC News)

The inmate said working in the prison garden was a stark contrast to his life in maximum security.

“The trap opened every morning on the door; two bits of cold toast, a carton of half warm milk, pushed through the trap,” Michael said.

“All of a sudden there’s no more razor wire, no more officers watching you wherever you go and it was a really weird feeling to begin with.

“Now I may have an option to do a diploma. No-one in my family’s ever done a diploma before.”

A woman straightens flowers with long stems
Industries Supervisor Julie Lawrie says inmates are learning how outside farm industries work.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

Industry experience 

Inmates can study certificates and diplomas in horticulture and rural operations.

Currently, 16 low security prisoners at a time work in the garden while completing their studies.

Every year, they grow about $50,000 worth of fruit, vegetables and other crops from 5 hectares of farmland.

The prison is also a major local supplier to its own kitchen and to the regional city at a fair market price.

It sells to fine dining restaurants and has even broken into the flower market. 

A man wearing an orange shirt holding flowers in a pot
The prison farm supplies to local shops and fine dining restaurants.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

Prison officer and supervisor of industries Julie Lawrie said it was not just the jail’s garden that was blooming.

“Some of these guys didn’t actually have these skills — some of them never finished school, don’t even have a car license; some of them were illiterate, so skills in what they had was nothing related to what we teach here,” Ms Lawrie said.

She said some prisoners who eventually took up work in the garden often took a while to adapt to the new environment.

“Not seeing the outside world for so many years, they do become very institutionalised and they’re quite scared,” she said.

“I just love seeing the change and the process in those prisoners and each individual — it can be quite rewarding actually.” 

Blurred prisoner
John says he felt directionless before coming to jail, and didn’t have strong career prospects.(ABC News: Trent Murphy)

Lessons learnt from past mistakes

John* could be released from prison this year and said he felt more prepared to rejoin society.

“You feel like you let a lot of people down by coming to a place like this, and not only yourself, the people you’ve affected — it’s much harder to swallow,” he said.

He said he made a mistake in his life, but recognised some of his fellow inmates faced extra pressures if they eventually left jail.

“For me, I’ve never suffered from a substance abuse, but finding jobs was hard for me, struggling with money,” he said.

“I know other people who have substance abuses always find it hard to find employment and are more likely to take shortcuts, so I feel like these programs can enable someone to find work quicker and take one less stress of getting back out into society.”

A prison manager smiles at the camera
Port Lincoln Prison General Manager Paul Oldacre says prisons in SA have been working to drive down recidivism rates.(ABC News: Trent Murphy)

Recidivism rates drop

The South Australian Department for Correctional Services said the state currently had the lowest recidivism rate in the country, with 39.3 per cent of prisoners returning to correctional services within two years of leaving prison.

The national average is 53.1 per cent.

Prison general manager Paul Oldacre said having a variety of working options at prisons changed the way inmates behaved.

“Boredom leads to inappropriate prohibited activity, people start looking at what rules they can break and what they can sneak into the prison, and those sort of organised criminal aspects of life come back in,” Mr Oldacre said.

“But when prisoners have meaningful activity and when they’ve got meaningful purpose, it takes their mind away from those substitutes and it gives them a purpose that there may well be light at the end of the tunnel.

“Not everyone is going to be a success story, but if we can keep having more success stories, then we’re doing our job.”

a man in a prison guard outfit smiles at camera
Industries Manager Grant Shepperd says many prisoners have gone on to find meaningful work.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

Former farmer and the prison’s industries manager, Grant Shepperd, said some prisoners had gone on to work at engineering firms, including one that had become a supervisor in a major company. 

“I’ve had other prisoners that have gone on to work on farms — they’ve learnt the basic skills here and have been able to secure a permanent or casual job once they’ve been released from custody,” Mr Shepperd said.

*Names are changed as a requirement of the Department for Correctional Services.

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Regional prisoners turn lives around in the hope of finding meaningful employment after jail


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