Prisoner 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.

Prisoners’ money

A prisoner’s money is held in a trust account and managed by the prison’s management. A prisoner’s account holds the money they earn at prison and any money given to them by family or friends.

Family and friends may bring money to the prison when they visit, or post a cheque or money order to the prison; this is then deposited into the prisoner’s account by prison management.

The maximum amount of “private money” a prisoner can receive is $140 per calendar month. However, prison management may allow a prisoner to receive additional private money to pay for long-distance phone calls to family and friends.

There is no limit to the amount of money that can be held in a prisoner’s account.

Prisoners’ employment

Under section 84H of the Corrections Act, sentenced prisoners may be directed to work in a prison industry. Remand prisoners are not required to work, but they may choose to if work is available.

The range of occupations available varies from prison to prison. They include employment in a range of prison industry programs, gardening, farming, cleaning prison areas, and clerical work.

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.

The Corrections Regulations state that a prisoner must be paid for work performed as the result of assignment to that work (reg 40). Prisoners also receive payment for participating in education and approved programs.

The rate of payment varies according to the type of work undertaken, the complexity of the work, the skills required, the prisoner’s ability and degree of responsibility, and the hours worked.

A prisoner’s earnings can be used to buy items from the prison canteen or to build savings, which are paid to the prisoner when they are released.

Some of the money earned by prisoners is withheld as compulsory savings that are made available to the prisoner when they are released. This is to help the prisoner with the costs related to their reintegration into the community. The amount withheld is 20 per cent of the prisoner’s earnings.

Under the Corrections Regulations, prison management can deduct money from a prisoner’s account for certain reasons. For example, money can be deducted from a prisoner’s account to cover the cost of replacing or repairing prison property that has been wilfully damaged or lost by the prisoner. Also, if a prisoner is fined (seePrisoner offences”), the fine amount is withdrawn from the prisoner’s account.

If a prisoner cannot be placed in employment due to a lack of available positions, they receive a minimum allowance. Remand prisoners also receive a minimum allowance.

A 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).

Prisoners who refuse to work, or who are dismissed from work due to poor performance, or who have lost their privileges, receive no payment from Corrections Victoria.

Occupational health and safety, workers’ compensation and WorkSafe do not apply to prisoners. Prisoners are not considered employees as there is no contract of employment.

However, if a prisoner is injured due to unsafe conditions, or due to the prison’s negligence, the matter can be dealt with by a claim under common law (seeCommon law duty of care”).

Centrelink benefits and allowances

Prisoners do not have a right to receive Centrelink benefits.

However, a possible exception to this is prisoners with a right to sickness 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 Australian Government 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).

Education

Prisoners can enrol in educational courses. Courses ranging from primary school level to tertiary level are available in most prisons.

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 their property (reg 36.1).

Voting

Following amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), people 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 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. Alternatively, remand prisoners can apply for a postal vote.

Change of name

While in custody a prisoner can only change their name (or the name of the prisoner’s children) with the written approval of the DJR Secretary; it is an offence for a prisoner to change their name without that prior approval (s 47H Corrections Act). The DJR 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)). A number of matters are set out that guide that application (s 47I). Similar provisions apply to prisoners who are on parole (see ss 79B, 79C).