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Prisoners get little choice about work

Prisoners will have little choice about working 40-hour weeks for low wages under a new government policy.

Prisoners at Rolleston, Tongariro and Auckland Women's prisons will soon be in full-time work, education or rehabilitation, under the plan revealed by Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday.

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley told TVNZ's Breakfast that inmates will be doing a variety of work, such as in prison kitchens and gardens, along with forestry and farming.

She acknowledged they won't be paid much: the normal rate is between 20c and 60c an hour, or if they're working on an outside contract, prisoners are paid a wage, with sums deducted for "their board and keep" and any outstanding fines.

Mrs Tolley says the amount they get is "whatever the contractor pays" - and that's unlikely to be the adult minimum wage of $13.50 an hour.

She also made it clear prisoners won't have much choice about doing the work.

"You don't actually get many choices when you go to prison ... We would be seriously encouraging prisoners to take advantage of what is a pretty good deal for them, to get some education, to get some skills."

She says if there were reasons the work at one prison didn't suit a prisoner, such as heavy manual work, Corrections might transfer them elsewhere.

Rolleston inmates in Christchurch are already learning construction skills and helping fix quake-damaged homes brought onto the prison's grounds, under a contract with Housing NZ.

Rethinking Crime and Punishment director Kim Workman says most prisoners would enjoy the opportunity to work a 40-hour week, but it will be challenging to find suitable work for all prisoners, and it would be unfortunate if they were transferred because they can't take part in certain jobs.

He says the government must also observe international conventions around prisons and forced labour.

That's a concern shared by the Green Party, which says work must not be compulsory or punitive.

"Prisoners must be paid for the work they do, and this money could be saved for their release to help with their reintegration into wider society," Green MP David Clenson says.