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Creating previously unimagined opportunities to succeed for women in prison

Enabling prisoners to gain the skills, experience and training to improve their employment prospects on release is one of the keys to successful rehabilitation. The provision of such opportunities is an important feature across our custodial estate in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

At the Serco-operated Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC), however, the ‘prison industries’ opportunities available to the female residents are something special – unrivalled in the Australian corrections industry. For this we have to thank Peter Wintringham, SQCC Industries Manager.

Peter joined Serco in 2008, having served in the corrections industry since 1999. With previous experience at Borallon CC, Peter took on his current role at SQCC when the facility transitioned from a male to female cohort in 2018.

Inheriting an industries operation designed exclusively for male prisoners, Peter was instrumental in the decision to maintain it for the new cohort, asking “Why shouldn’t female prisoners do that kind of work?”

Peter and his team run the workshop on a commercial basis consistent with any manufacturing business in the broader community:

“We try to give them the best possible understanding of what it's like in any normal factory environment, including what would be expected of them. We’re open 8am–4pm, Monday to Friday, with a proper factory siren and three different shift patterns – and it’s real work, we’re not just keeping them busy.”

Real work with real customers – SQCC has contracts to produce pallets and metal frames for local companies. While several teams are working in the metal shop, running the computer-assisted machinery to manufacture steel frames and roof trusses, others are in the wood shop, feeding 100,000 meters of timber through the saws every month to fulfil pallet orders.

Peter’s team also includes an engineering tutor, a cabinetmaker and a grounds maintenance instructor managing another team of prisoners.

New arrivals at SQCC can choose to work in a number of different areas, including the kitchens or laundry service, but those willing to challenge themselves in the workshop soon discover a whole new world of opportunity:

“It's not for everyone but there are plenty who never look back,” says Peter. “Many have never had or held down a job, let alone gained real training and experience doing ‘men’s work’. The opportunity to get their hands on something more meaningful than ripping rags is exciting and empowering. Very quickly they can discover that they’re far more capable than they’ve ever given themselves credit for.”

For Peter, it’s all about transforming lives:

“Getting a job on release is half the battle. We provide meaningful employment inside that could lead to any number of opportunities outside. Yes, we have our commercial contracts, but our real business is encouraging positive behaviours and new thought patterns, creating previously unimagined opportunities to succeed and, ultimately, reducing reoffending.”

Watching someone walk out of SQCC and into employment is always a highlight:

“That’s the best thing. Many of our clients have their own factories on the outside and they’re willing to give our workers a chance. We’ve had a few success stories – it gives everyone hope.”

Peter attributes the success of this groundbreaking, equal opportunities approach in part to his freedom to innovate with Serco.

“I don't know whether what we’ve achieved here would be possible under different leadership. With Serco, there’s flexibility in the face of change – the opportunity to evolve with existing partnerships and create bold new ones. It makes all the difference if you’ve got someone who believes in what you’re doing. What I do know is that Queensland Corrective Services are consistently blown away by it – they can’t believe how well the women have taken to this work.”

The prisoners receive comprehensive training in their chosen professions, but it takes more than that to help them succeed. Peter understands the complex needs of the prisoners under his supervision and runs the workshop accordingly.

“Nearly all of them have had their lives turned upside down by men – often involving some form of abuse. It requires a very careful and compassionate approach.”

During the transition, Peter and his team completed extensive training for working with a female cohort, and their experience has embedded that learning.

“If someone is challenging, you don’t argue, you don’t shout; you take a step back, give them space and try to understand what’s driving their behaviour. The success of the workshop and everyone in it depends on honest working relationships built on trust, empathy and respect.”

Peter has nothing but the utmost respect for his workers:

“They’re a much better workforce than the men, hands down. They take more pride in their work and their attention to detail is excellent. I like a clean and tidy workshop and so do they. With men, you’re constantly on them to clean up after themselves. The women are also more likely to admit to a mistake and try to fix it, rather than cover it up. We’ve not had a single customer complaint since the transition, and I guarantee it wasn't as good with the men. It's been an absolute privilege and they’ve taught me a lot."