It took a leap of faith for PlaceMakers to begin employing prisoners from the Kohuora Auckland South Correctional Facility.

The Serco-run prison was built by PlaceMakers' parent company Fletcher Building. When Serco then asked PlaceMakers to operate a workshop in the prison and employ release-to-work prisoners in its Wiri facility there were a few nervous people.

PlaceMakers general manager of national sales and manufacturing Blake Bibbie says his first reaction was "horror". "Then we took another breath and said 'we can make this work'."

There were also issues from Serco's side to work out the logistics of PlaceMakers' staff coming in and out of the prison. The issues turned out to be surmountable and the programme was born in 2015.


"The benefit for us is we are able to take people on who are willing to learn," says Bibbie. In a candidate-short market that is a godsend.

"These people are more productive and interested in their job than some of our long servicing people," says Bibbie.

Inside the prisoners construct house frames in a facility that replicates real work conditions with normal work routines. They can gain NZQA-approved unit standards. All jobs are advertised and the men prepare CVs, write application letters and attend an interview as they would in the community, says Kohuora director Mike Inglis.

They go through a number of programmes to help them become work ready before progressing to the workshop.

Once they graduate from the prison-based facility to the release-to-work programme at PlaceMakers' Frame & Truss plant - a few hundred metres away as the crow flies - the prisoners construct trusses.

PlaceMakers offers daily mentoring of the prisoners working at the plant.

Employers willing to give former prisoners a go are making their communities a safer place to be, says Inglis.

The programme can be real game-changer in the prisoner's lives. Jobs are very empowering, Inglis says.

So far around 190 prisoners have been involved in the programme. Of these, 14 have gone on to become PlaceMakers' employees after their release.

With a shortage of construction-related workers in the country, PlaceMakers could employ more, says Fletcher Building Distribution chief executive Dean Fradgley.

He says it has been a life changing experience for prisoners who have gone through the programme and some have written to thank the company.

Current release-to-work prisoner "David", who is six months away from finishing his sentence, says he feels incredibly proud of himself. "I am getting to interact with people who don't have a negative influence on me," David says. "I have gained skills I never thought possible.

"The main thing is stepping out of my comfort zone to build my confidence and self-esteem," the 38-year-old says.

David looks forward to getting out of bed in prison and seeing his friends at PlaceMakers. "Here (at the PlaceMakers' plant) it is about the team and the people."

The question of employing former prisoners is one with many dimensions.

Some recruiters or employers simply wouldn't countenance the concept and it may not be appropriate in some circumstances. For example, someone with dishonesty convictions may not be suitable for a position involving access to money.

But Fradgley says the prisoners have turned out to be valuable employees and he has no doubt some of them will be promoted to team leader or manager roles as time goes on.

Bibbie says if businesses truly believe in New Zealand Inc they would "step outside their comfort zone and give the inmates a second chance".

"They are talented people. Everyone has bad times in their lives. I would be disappointed if (former prisoners) were disenfranchised."

Stephen Cunningham, director offender employment and reintegration at Corrections says a 2015 study showed there was a 20 per cent reduction in returning to crime by non-violent offenders who secured jobs when they left prison.

Many learn building-related skills in prison and can be very well qualified and experienced by the time they leave -- especially if they have served a long sentence.

Corrections' Rolleston Prison has a workshop where quake-damaged houses are refurbished. Prisoners who are accepted learn plastering, painting, carpentry or other skills. Many former prisoners who went through the workshop are now contributing to the Christchurch rebuild thanks to the skills they learned in prison.

Other prisoners have been placed by Corrections' employment agency to work in logging, horticulture and transport, says Cunningham.

Corrections' strategy for placing former offenders involves wraparound services to ease them into their new lives. "They are well-screened and we are dealing with people who have done their time and are willing and motivated to work," says Cunningham.

Other organisations such as The Salvation Army also run reintegration services. It assists up to 500 of the 15,000 prisoners released each year in New Zealand. The Salvation Army works with more serious criminals who have been in prison for more than three years. Their recidivism rates are reduced significantly, says national operations manager Glen Buckner.

Though some employers are averse to employing a former prisoner, they do need to be careful about a gaggle of laws including the Human Rights, Criminal Records (Clean Slate), Employment Relations and Privacy acts.

Rebecca Rendle, a senior associate at law firm Simpson Grierson, points out that under the Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act candidates don't have to disclose certain historical convictions.

There is, however, no clean slate for sexual offences. What's more, people eligible under the clean slate rules still have to reveal their convictions for particular types of employment including jobs involving the care of children/young persons.

It's very easy for an employer to make costly mistakes. For example, a Christchurch man who was dismissed for lying on his job application about serious criminal convictions was awarded $6750 in compensation plus 75 per cent of three months wages by the Employment Relations Authority.