Corrections Education Tutor, Bhagawan Patil, supports a prisoner through learning his Road Code. A programme running in Canterbury prisons, designed to help prisoners gain their learner drivers licence, has had a 91% pass rate in its first twelve months.

Corrections and the Automobile Association are collaborating in the scheme that has seen 120 men gain their licence and, with it, their first step towards creating better outcomes when they are released from prison.

“Having a driving licence is a huge achievement for the men we work with,” says Maree Abernethy, Corrections Principal Adviser Rehabilitation and Learning.

“A licence opens up many opportunities for employment and is a huge accomplishment and a badge of honour, especially for youth,” she says.

A further 60 prisoners have been able to renew their licence which ensures they have this qualification available to increase their employment options on release.

“This is a big deal for those who achieve their licence. It demonstrates that learning is possible and that, if they set their mind to doing something, these things are really achievable,” says Maree.

“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 legally in the community.”

Two of the newly licenced offenders say they are looking forward to continuing working towards achieving their restricted and full licences on release.

Tom* had a full licence before entering prison. He lost this with his drink driving conviction. He is looking forward to release from prison soon, but doesn’t want to drive unless he is driving legally. He has a job waiting for him and, living in the country, he knows that life is simpler with a licence.

He says it has been really good to start down the process of becoming licenced again while he is in prison. He will do his restricted as soon as possible on release and hopefully be fully licenced again by late next year.

For Matua*, this is the first time he has had a licence. In his early 40’s, Matua has been driving since he was 15 years old without a licence.

He says he is really proud of his achievement, “I told the family and they couldn’t believe it,” he says.

He’s had cars impounded and ‘thousands in fines’. “I was a bit of an ‘adrenalin junkie’. Not having a licence was taking a bit of a risk.”

On sentence for violence offences, Matua says he has been in prison ‘many times’ and achieving his learner licence is a big deal. “I’ve done therapy this time, I understand myself better and why I used to do stuff. I don’t feel the need to seek adrenalin anymore.”

“This time is different,” he says, “I have done the programmes. Alcohol and drugs were drivers in my offending and I had a whole lot of anger. Pity I didn’t do things earlier, I’ve wasted all these years.”

“It’s the first time in my whole life that I feel I’ve made the right decisions to live a normal life.”

Matua’s learner licence is held by the prison, with his belongings, and will be given to him on release.

“I’m going to grab my clothing and I’ll see my licence,” he says. “Wow, how good is this? New licence, new life.”

In the Youth unit, young offenders are also lining up to get their learner licence.

“Driving offences, including driving without a licence and driving while disqualified, are common reasons for young men ending up in trouble with the law,” says Maree.

Each programme runs for six weeks, one hour per week and 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 the men receive expert advice from the prison tutor who runs through the test questions clarifying any areas causing difficulty for the men.

After five 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 most of our students finish in about 15-20 minute after the preparation they’ve received in-house. Paperwork completed, eye sight checked, drivers licence photo is taken and the learners are ready to legally drive as Learner Drivers.

In addition to gaining their licence, the process engages offenders in literacy and numeracy learning. Embedding learning in something that people are particularly interested in is a real driver for engagement.

So far sixteen programmes have been delivered (plus two currently running) to short serving prisoners across the three Canterbury prisons, including in the Youth Unit at Christchurch Men’s Prison since July 2015.

Prison Education Tutor, Bhagawan Patil, says he enjoys teaching the drivers 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 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.

More programmes and tests are planned over the next six months.

With comments from the youth graduates like, “if I pass a learner driver licence test, I will not come back to prison,” or “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.” Corrections staff can feel satisfied that this project is one which can make a real difference in the Learner Licence graduates’ lives.

* Not his real name. Identities withheld to support the men’s rehabilitation