Admirable idea falls down on numerous practicalities.

Some policies aimed at quenching what politicians perceive to be a public appetite for fairness are recycled regularly even when they have been shown to be deeply flawed. One of these is the idea that the unemployed should have to work for the dole. Another is placing youthful offenders in the army for a period to learn discipline. Then there is the notion of putting prisoners to work while they are behind bars. Not only will they no longer be idle but there is the theory that a regular working routine will help them reintegrate into society when they are released.

Fired by this belief, the Government plans for up to 1400 prisoners to be working 40 hours a week - without pay - by the end of this year. This "working prisons" initiative will apply to all inmates at Rolleston and also to the North Island prisons Tongariro-Rangipo and the Auckland Women's Correction Facility. According to Corrections Minister Anne Tolley, the work will give prisoners "a structured day, help with behaviour and [mean] you're not institutionalising them too much before they go back out into the community".

If only it were that simple. Ms Tolley has conceded the plan will require "significant infrastructure upgrades". Presumably she is referring to the workplace equipment that will need to be installed in prisons. The costs do not, however, end there. There is the expense involved in work training and tuition for the inmates. This is beyond the capability of prison staff, so will have to be summoned from outside. There is also the extra supervision that will have to be provided for people who will be forced to work but have no incentive to do this to the best of their ability.

The problems do not stop there, as indicated by the experience in Britain. It has proceeded far further down this path, albeit while, unlike here, paying inmates for their labour, even if at a rate well below the country's minimum wage. Within a decade, the Cameron Government plans to double the 10,000 convicts currently in work. Already, however, the British Prison Officers Association has complained that this is exploitative of prisoners and risks damaging the wider economy. "We have concerns about simply using prisoners as cheap labour for companies to cut their costs," it has said. That cutting means, inevitably, that in some cases prisoners are taking the jobs of people in the community.


Additionally, there is the risk that an increasing emphasis on getting inmates into work will lessen that on education, employment training and drug and alcohol addiction treatment programmes. This rehabilitation work was, commendably, at the forefront of Government policy announced last year. The Budget contained a $65 million funding boost for this, with the aim of reducing reoffending by 25 per cent within five years. At the end of that time, the Government plans to have 600 fewer people in jail.

A key part of this programme is providing greater support for prisoners to find jobs when they are released. Theoretically, that process should be aided by the Government's work initiative. This is also a way of making prisons pay more for their upkeep. But the example of Britain shows the perils of large-scale work schemes. There are also ethical issues attached to making inmates work without pay. These may not unduly concern those who hate the idea of prisoners lazing about in their cells. They should, however, be concerned by the practicalities of an idea that has the potential to do far more harm than good.