Over the last ten years more than 400 prisoners have gained dairy skills and qualifications at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) and this month the prison presented its first level 3 Certificate in Dairy Farming, Animal Health and Husbandry.

“This is a big deal,” says OCF’s Principal Instructor, Dairy and Grounds, Tony Russell. “It’s a big deal for the offender who plans to make a new life, with a new career, on release, for his family and the community who will benefit from his new life choice and for the prison training programme.”

“The national certificate is a practical and widely recognised qualification for the men,” says Tony. “In terms of knowledge and employability, it verifies their CV with proof of their experience and ability. It shows they have already completed training that the farmer would have to undertake with a worker new to the industry and it highlights the variety of work they have undertaken to an industry standard.”

To reach level 3, students need to have at least a year’s practical experience on a dairy farm.

“We are really proud of all our learners,” says Tony. “It is a challenging qualification. The men work on the farm during the day and then have to do theory and study outside that. Without access to computers, this is back to old style book work.”

Jake* is incredibly proud of his achievement and being the first prisoner in 10 years to reach this qualification level.

“I knew a little bit about farming but not enough to be able to work by myself on a farm or work as part of a team.

“I’m hoping I’ll get the opportunity to work on a dairy farm just prior to release through the Release to Work scheme, and then on release, before looking at working in other fields of farming. At the moment I will stick to dairy, as that is what I know and find interesting and I am always learning.

“Achieving my level 2 and 3 took a lot of time and effort. It is very important to me and I hope to make it a big part of my life. Farming is a commitment which I enjoy and I want to do it to a high standard.”

Tony says he has another offender who is very close to graduating his Level 3, one well on his way and three others working on level 2 and level 3 theory and practical units.

“Some men come to our farm with prior experience that we recognise when they get in the milking pit. Others have no prior experience or knowledge, but have the interest and aptitude to get their qualifications.”

While offenders, once released, are not compelled to tell Tony how they are going, a few of them give him a call to update him on their progress.

This includes Bruce*, a graduate of the farming programme, released late last year and who is now working on a dairy farm in Southland. He says he is loving the work and doing well and was put in sole charge after a couple of weeks while the herd manager took overdue leave.

Another offender, Dave*, is currently on Release to Work on a local dairy farm where the manager reports he is very happy with his performance.

OCF, like all New Zealand prisons, is a working prison. All prisoners are engaged in work, education and rehabilitation programmes for forty hours a week.

“Farming is a seven day a week commitment, and we find the men working on the farm are happy to work as many hours as they can. This gets them out of the prison and onto the farm and develops an excellent work ethic in the men for future employment,” says Tony.

According to Tony, farm employers say they are happy with the knowledge and experience of the prison graduates.

“They arrive at the farm work ready and are capable of working to a 2 IC level,” he says. “We are told they are keen and loyal workers and they tend to progress quickly with access to further learning opportunities, computers and other technologies that they can’t access in the prison environment.”

“With a predicted skill shortage in agriculture, this is an important programme for the individual, employers and the economy,” says Tony.

“We are really proud of the men and their achievements, and of the reputation the prison farm has for the level of its graduates.”

Note: In addition to prison workers, over the past two years, the farm has offered basic farm training and experience to sixty offenders serving community work sentences in Dunedin as part of their Work and Living Skills programme.  This opportunity is only offered in Otago.