Prisoner rights: employment and other issues

Prisoners can earn money while in prison by working or taking set educational courses. Prisoners can buy and sell property, sue or be sued and many prisoners have the right to vote. A prisoner may apply for approval to change their name. Prisoners are not entitled to unemployment benefits.

Employment and money

Under the Corrections Regulations, prisoners receive payment for working in prison employment and industries or for participation in education and approved programs. They receive a minimum allowance if they cannot be placed in employment due to a lack of available positions or if they are remand prisoners.

Payment varies according to the type of work undertaken, hours worked and the ability displayed by the prisoner. Prisoner earnings can be used to buy items such as cigarettes and personal hygiene items from the prison canteen or to build savings, which are paid to the prisoner upon release.

Prisoners who refuse to work, are dismissed from work due to poor performance, or are under a loss of privileges regime, for any reason, receive no payment from Corrections Victoria.

The Corrections Regulations state that a prisoner must be paid for work performed as the result of assignment to that work (reg 40). However, the prison manager may dismiss a prisoner who in the prison manager’s opinion is not performing satisfactorily, or is disruptive to the program (reg 41).

Convicted prisoners have no right to Commonwealth social security unemployment benefits while in prison. Prisoners may be entitled to other benefits. It has been held that a prisoner serving a life sentence who was hospitalised for schizophrenia was eligible to receive sickness benefits from the Department of Social Security. The prisoner in that case was not detained in a mental hospital in connection with his conviction for an offence (see Secretary, Department of Social Security v Bulsy Australian Social Security Guide 92–135).

The range of occupations available varies from prison to prison. They include employment in a wide range of prison industry programs, gardening, farming, billet duties (e.g. cleaning prison areas) and various types of clerical work. Some of these occupations are more sought after than others and they are, consequently, more difficult to obtain. Assignment to employment is conducted by prison-based review and assessment committees, which consider a range of factors, including a prisoner’s work skills, previous employment and security needs. A prisoner may request a new occupation at any time. Prisoners may also enrol in educational courses. Courses ranging from primary school level to tertiary level are available in most prisons.

Remand prisoners do not have to work. They can request work if they desire. The amount of work available depends on the particular prison.

Buying and selling property

Prisoners may legally buy and sell all forms of property, make wills, enter contracts, and sue and be sued for damages. A prisoner may nominate a person to receive any of the prisoner’s property (reg 36.1).


Following amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), persons convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment on a full-time basis were not permitted to vote in federal elections. This amendment was successfully challenged on constitutional grounds in the High Court by Victorian prisoner Vicky Roach (see Roach v Electoral Commissioner [2007] HCA 43).

Now a person serving a sentence of imprisonment of less than three years who satisfies the other requirements for enrolment (i.e. the person is over 18 years of age and is an Australian citizen) is entitled to be enrolled and vote in federal elections. Prisoners on remand are still entitled to vote at federal elections.

The Australian Electoral Commission can provide mobile polling facilities at prisons. This is normally provided based on past experience of the need for such a booth and on the advice of the prison manager. As such mobile polling booths need to be gazetted sufficient notice is required of the need for such a facility. Alternatively, remand prisoners can apply for a postal vote. Welfare officers or the Prison Advice Service can assist in obtaining the necessary forms.

Change of name

While in custody a prisoner can only change their name with the written approval of the Secretary and it is an offence to do so without that prior approval (s 47H Corrections Act). The Secretary can only approve a change of name if they are “satisfied that the change of name is in all the circumstances necessary or reasonable” (s 47I (1) Corrections Act). A number of matters are set out that guide that application (s 47I Corrections Act). Similar provisions apply to prisoners who are on parole (see ss 79B, 79C Corrections Act).