Over the last five months, 38 prisoners in Canterbury prisons have gained their first learner licences.
The programme, a collaboration between Corrections and the Automobile Association (AA), has had a 97.7% pass rate. An additional six prisoners have been able to renew their driver licences, which ensures they can drive legally on release.
“Having a driver licence is a huge achievement for the men we work with,” says Maree Abernethy, Corrections Principal Adviser Rehabilitation and Learning.
“A licence is a badge of honour, especially for the youth. It also demonstrates that learning is possible and that, if they set their mind to doing something, these things are really achievable.”
“Many of the men who have graduated this course have been driving without licences, have driving convictions in their histories or would have been leaving prison with a lapsed licence.”
“This is a really big thing for those involved and will help these men and youth to live lawfully in the community.”
In the 2014/15 financial year, around 3,400 people were sentenced for driving related offences, including driving while disqualified, driving with excess alcohol, and driving at a dangerous speed or in a dangerous manner. Around 280 of these incurred prison sentences.
In his early 40s, Shane* is one of the prison’s learner licence graduates. Shane has been driving without a licence since he was 13 years old. He has had numerous convictions for driving without a licence and disqualified driving over the past 21 years.
“I am really proud to have gained my learner driver licence. I have never had one before.”
“In the past it was hard to study the Road Code as I have difficulty with reading and comprehension. I didn’t want others to know that I couldn’t read well.”
Shane now has children of his own. He does not want them following in his footsteps and assumes they too would drive without a licence as they have seen him do. Following his release he is looking forward to showing them his new licence and encouraging them to get their licence too.
In the Youth Unit, young offenders are lining up to get their learner licences. “Driving offences, including driving without a licence or while disqualified, are common reasons for young men ending up in trouble with the law,” says Maree.
Each programme runs one hour per week, for four weeks. It involves reading, studying the Road Code, and working on practice test papers. Each learner is issued a Road Code and Road Code Study Guide at the beginning of the course. In class a tutor runs through the test questions with the men and clarifies any areas that may be causing them difficulty.
After four weeks of preparation, the participants sit their test with a representative from the AA. The duration of the test is approximately 30 minutes per person. However, Maree says the in-house preparation sees most of them finish in about 15-20 minutes. After the paperwork is completed, their eye sight checked and a photo taken, the learners are ready to legally drive.
In addition to gaining their licence, the process helps offenders improve their literacy and numeracy skills. Since July 2015, four programmes have been delivered to short serving prisoners across the three Canterbury prisons.
Prison Education Tutor Bhagawan Patil says he enjoys teaching the driver licence classes because the students enjoy the subject matter and are motivated to learn.
“The men feel a sense of achievement when they pass the test, particularly those who have failed in the past and have now succeeded on their first attempt in prison,” says Bhagawan.
“I feel the driver licence programme has been very successful because we can see happy faces with a sense of achievement, pride and independence.”
The youth in particular are incredibly motivated by achieving their licence.
The driver licence programmes and tests are planned to continue over the next six months. Corrections staff can feel assured that this project is one which can make a real difference in the offenders’ lives. Youth prisoners have commented: “If I pass a learner driver licence test, I will not come back to prison”, “Now I can drive anywhere without the fear of police stopping me for not having a licence” and “My mum will be proud of me.”
* Not his real name. Name withheld to support his rehabilitation.