Apart from the claustrophobia of being imprisoned in a cell, I imagine the worst thing about being incarcerated would be the stultifying boredom.

Not working, not meeting new people, not being able to learn new skills - just hanging around listlessly, filling in time, until the lights go out. It would drive me mad.

Which is why I think the idea of inmates working 40 hours a week is an excellent one.

I don't believe humans were designed to be useless. It doesn't suit our bodies and it doesn't suit our minds.


Our prisons are packed with men and women who have so much potential. They may not be highly educated nor have marketable skills - right now. They may have dropped out of school at a young age and never gained qualifications. Many will be battling addictions.

On the streets, very few of these men and women would have had the opportunity, or the inclination, to seek out agencies that could help them change their here and now but, in prison, they are a captive audience.

It's true that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink - or, in the inimitable words of Dorothy Parker, you can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think - but what else are inmates going to do? It's not like their diaries are full of other engagements for filling in a day.

Prime Minister John Key announced in his first speech to Parliament this year that all prisoners at Tongariro-Rangipo, Rolleston and Auckland Women's Corrections Facility were expected to be working fulltime by the end of the year and the number of prisons with fulltime work programmes would be gradually expanded, even though the plan would require significant infrastructure upgrades at considerable cost.

Surely prisoners must see this as a vote of confidence that they are worthwhile, useful, contributing members of the community - or at least have the potential to be.

Investment in them shows a belief that they have a future that won't involve a revolving door into a prison cell. If prisoners do meaningful work, surely that will give them a stake in a community, a community in which they have previously felt disenfranchised.

Take the Rolleston inmates, for instance. They've already begun 40-hour working weeks in response to a demand for labour for the rebuild of Christchurch. Being part of the rebuild of a magnificent city has to be better for the body and soul than languishing in a cell.

According to the Government's master plan, if inmates can't work, for whatever reason, they'll spend 40 hours a week in rehabilitation or education.

This initiative will be a lot more expensive than the enforced idleness the prisoners endure now. And not all of them will benefit from the opportunity. But the investment in these men and women is a powerful signal that they have a place in our communities. That they have untapped potential. And that they deserve the chance to choose another way of living.