Vocational education and training provision and recidivism in Queensland correctional institutions

By Victor Callan, John Gardner Research report 25 July 2005 ISBN 1 920896 77 5 print; 1 920896 78 3 web


This report examines links between prisoners' participation in the vocational education and training (VET) programs available within the Queensland prison system and their chances of returning to prison. The findings reveal that being involved in VET before initial release decreases the chances of returning to prison from 32% to 23%. Nevertheless, particular attention needs to be given to designing a comprehensive range of programs targeted at meeting the needs of individual prisoner groups, particularly for Indigenous prisoners. The research supports efforts to promote the value of VET and its role in prisoner rehabilitation, and to reduce barriers to accessing VET in correctional centres.


About the research

  • In Queensland, about one in five prisoners is participating in some form of vocational education and training (VET) program before release. Being involved in a vocational education program before initial release is associated with a decrease in the chance of offenders returning to custody. Ignoring the potential role of all other factors, offenders who have been involved in VET programs before initial release have a recidivism rate of 23%, compared with 32% for offenders who do not participate in VET programs.
  • Persistent values and cultures in correctional institutions mean many continue to give vocational education and training a low priority. Evidence in this and previous research concerned with the barriers to the provision of education and vocational training shows that Australian correctional systems are still grappling with how to more fully integrate the management of offenders. Nevertheless, many of the key elements needed to develop this more integrated strategy are already in place, such as flexible arrangements within centres that assist offenders to attend VET programs and good levels of cooperation between corrections staff and VET trainers.
  • There is a need for the ongoing development, introduction and enhancement of a wide range of psychological, educational and vocational training programs in prisons. These programs need to target the needs of specific prisoner groups, to provide them with opportunities, to address their personal, social and educational disadvantages, and to help reduce recidivism.

Executive summary

This project investigates the nature of vocational education and training (VET) programs being delivered in correctional centres, including the factors assisting or hindering the delivery of these programs to prisoners. The research also statistically determines the factors most associated with reducing the rates of return to prison of offenders (that is, prisoner recidivism).

To address these issues, a brief review of past research was undertaken and interviews with those involved in the corrections system were conducted. The final step of the project involved the examination of various databases to investigate the factors most associated with offender recidivism. To this end, the first part of this report provides a review of Australian and other research into the nature of offenders, and in particular, the links between reduced rates of offender recidivism and access to education, training and employment programs at the pre-release and post-release stages. This is followed by a discussion of the findings from 145 interviews with correctional staff, prisoners and trainers in several Queensland correctional centres. Interviews examined staff and prisoner perceptions of the factors facilitating or acting as barriers to the provision of vocational education and training programs in correctional institutions. The final section of this report uses quantitative methods (a series of cross-tabulations and logistic regression analyses) to examine the characteristics of offenders who become involved in vocational education and training while in prison, and their recidivism rates.

The review of past research reveals that adult offenders in Australia face cumulative social and economic disadvantage relative to the Australian population as a whole, with an average school age of Year 10 or below, training levels well below the Australian average, higher rates of mental illness, and greater rates of unemployment. There is a growing acknowledgement nationally that the corrective services sector has an active role to play in crime prevention by adopting a 'throughcare' strategy, which involves the provision of programs and opportunities addressing the causes of offending, and which maximises the chances of successful re-integration in the community and reduces the risk of re-offending. There is evidence that various jurisdictions in Australia are developing or expanding upon this strategy to achieve more integrated management of offenders throughout their correctional systems.

The interviews with prisoners and staff who work in corrections reveal that both groups believe that the following factors facilitated the provision of vocational education and related programs in centres:

  • the practice of risk assessment upon initial incarceration to allow identification of the most appropriate education and training programs for offenders
  • the adoption of a module-by-module approach in the delivery of training courses
  • the motivation of prisoners to want to complete courses, and related positive perceptions by prisoners about the role that prison staff and trainers play in assisting them
  • the availability and access to dedicated training workshops in correctional centres
  • evidence that vocational training had enhanced the employment of released prisoners.

On the other hand, these same interviews revealed that the perceived barriers to the successful provision of VET programs included:

  • the demands associated with the provision of complete programs dealing with offending behaviour and the perceived lower importance of vocational education and training
  • operational constraints in centres impacting upon prisoners' access to training opportunities
  • the difficulties in managing education and vocational training around the demands of prison work
  • the uncertainty of prisoners being able to complete their training due to prison transfers or early release.

In addition to these barriers were the related training provision challenges experienced in many centres. These included:

  • accessing skilled trainers
  • the cancellation of courses due to a lack of access to trainers
  • the difficulties in managing waiting lists for training and the determination of future training
  • the lack of success in introducing workplace assessment in the prison workshops and on the prison farms.

This study had a particular focus on the experiences of Indigenous offenders. Indigenous prisoners were most likely to continue with VET courses where they had access to one-on-one support from trainers and tutors, and where there were other Indigenous prisoners training with them. VET officers and the Indigenous officers in the correctional centres believed that it was important to recruit trainers from the registered training organisations who were sensitive to the self-esteem issues of many Indigenous prisoners, their low levels of schooling, and the cultural differences between various groups of Indigenous prisoners which required understanding and appropriate management by trainers.

The final part of the study examined the characteristics of prisoners who access VET and the factors that predict lower levels of prisoner recidivism. The initial sample of people analysed consisted of 6021 individuals who were released from prison in Queensland between 1 July 2001 and 30 November 2002. Initially, a series of cross-tabulations compared the characteristics of offenders participating in any VET programs with those who did not participate in VET programs while in a correctional facility. Offenders who had been involved in VET were:

  • less likely to return to community supervision and less likely to return to the corrective system overall
  • more likely to be female
  • more likely to be non-Indigenous
  • more likely to have committed offences involving robbery and extortion, and less likely to have committed offences against good order, such as vagrancy, trespassing and drunkenness
  • more likely to have sentences ranging from one year to ten years
  • more likely to have higher levels of education
  • more likely to be involved in the Post Release Employment Assistance Program and literacy/numeracy programs prior to release
  • more likely, on average, to be younger.

However, while the cross-tabulations do not allow for the possible effects of other factors,logistic regression analyses do provide findings that statistically control for the effects of other variables in the sample, and those results indicate the unique contribution of each variable, after correcting for the effects of all other variables. The analyses revealed that a combination of factors successfully predicted recidivism. More specifically, those prisoners who had greater chances of returning to the corrections system were more likely: to have shorter initial sentences; to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; and to be convicted of property offences and offences against good order. Those offenders less likely to return: were older; had higher levels of education (especially Year 12 or beyond); were convicted of robbery/extortion or drug offences; and had participated in VET programs before their initial release. Depending on the measure of recidivism used (two measures were used in this report), the analyses showed a drop of either 24% or 28% in the rate of recidivism associated with involvement by offenders in VET programs.

There are several implications to emerge from the findings of this report, most important of which is the need to continue efforts to promote to offenders, and to those who work in correctional centres, the value of vocational education and training as a major strategy for achieving the successful re-integration of released offenders back into the worlds of work, family and community. Moreover, it is important to continue to identify and resolve the operational barriers negatively impacting upon the provision of vocational education and training in correctional centres. A major challenge is the achievement of a more integrated prisoner management system. The key elements in this system include stronger links and improved coordination between the use of offender induction programs, offender risk needs assessment, offending behaviour and educational and training programs, and pre-release or transition programs. The establishment of links between these programs and the transition of prisoners into pre-release employment programs near the end of their sentences also appears to be critical.

Finally, due to their shorter sentences, many offenders are ineligible to access VET programs. However, the analyses showed that offenders with shorter initial sentences are more likely to return to the corrective system than those with longer initial sentences. A key issue for further debate is the value in expanding the levels of access to VET for these offenders.


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