Key Points:

Roadworks company Fulton Hogan took a gamble by employing prisoners to help build a new motorway through Mt Roskill last year - and it has paid off in more ways than one.

The company says the 20 prisoners it took on through the prison system's release-to-work scheme have proved more reliable than many workers employed through labour hire firms, and six are still working on the motorway months after leaving jail.

Its new relationship with the Corrections Department has yielded spinoffs in Taranaki, where prisoners are driving up from Wanganui Prison each day to help build infrastructure for the Kupe gas project, and in Hawke's Bay, where one prisoner has been taken on so far.

And last night the company was highly commended in the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust's annual work-and-life awards, which encourage employers to recruit from groups that face discrimination and to help employees balance work with the rest of their lives.

"A lot of prisoners actually have skills - there are chippies, concrete workers, drain layers. They are skills that are hard to find," said Fulton Hogan site safety manager John Smith.

"So we took a gamble, I suppose, took a punt, and it has worked out very well."

Johnathan, 25, started working on the project in February after three years in jail and is still there seven months after he was released in April. He said that if Fulton Hogan had not taken him on, he would probably have gone back to crime.

"Before, I was stressing out worrying, 'What am I going to do? No one's going to hire me.' I used to lose quite a bit of sleep over that," he said.

"If I had got out and had no job, I would have gone back to the old crowd and done crime to make money, because the benefit is not enough."

Although he worked as a glazier before going to jail, he wanted a "fresh start" when he came out. He has gained experience in surveying and drainlaying on the motorway and Fulton Hogan has helped him enrol in a plumbing course at Unitec next year.

"Fulton Hogan is awesome," he said. "They gave me a chance."

Junior, a 45-year-old father of six, spent a year in jail for domestic violence and is on probation until 2010. He used to be a painter but is happy to be labouring on the motorway.

"I'll give this a go for a while to learn a lot of skills here," he said.

A 21-year-old man, who declined to be named, started working on the motorway four months before he finished his second jail term last month.

"I started doing crime at a young age. I didn't see any opportunity to work at that stage," he said.

"This job is going to finish soon so I'm not sure what's going to happen."

Phil Harman of Corrections Inmate Employment, who manages the release-to-work scheme, said 55 per cent of prisoners had never held a fulltime job.

Release-to-work was available only for prisoners in the last year of their sentence who had done everything required to address the causes of their offending, such as attending anger management or drug and alcohol courses.

"They are going to be released, so getting them into employment is a positive factor. The idea is to try and give them the opportunity to change," he said.

Prisoners on the Mt Roskill site caught buses from Mt Eden Prison, and Fulton Hogan told the jail if they turned up late. No one absconded.

"What we found is that they were here at the crack of dawn, every day, regardless. They often beat me to work," said Fulton Hogan's deputy safety manager, Tash Mullen.

"It gave them that incentive. It gave them something to look forward to. They wanted to be here."

The supreme award in last night's work-and-life awards was won by Air New Zealand for a campaign to recruit young aviation engineering trainees through a Bebo site developed by a 17-year-old trainee, Emma Price.

* On the web:

www.eeotrust.org.nz