Lowana Longbottom has never been comfortable with the fact that a quarter of inmates in Australia's prisons are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
For the 23-year-old Indigenous woman, it has been the driving force behind her goal to someday work in a NSW prison.
“I want [Australia] to see that we can have Aboriginal people on both sides ... working, and not just inmates,” she said.
Ms Longbottom is one of 25 Indigenous jobseekers to complete the Justice Aboriginal Pre-Employment pilot program at Campbelltown TAFE, a preliminary step towards becoming a correctional officer in NSW.
Of the 25 graduates, 21 were women.
“I think it's important to have Aboriginal culture in the jails because we've had a lot of black deaths in custody,” Ms Longbottom said. “I feel something needs to be done, and I think for a lot of the women in the course, that was their reason as well.
“For women to have that authority in a jail is a big thing … there are a lot of empowering women that want to get their voice out there, because we can do things just as well as [men]... especially in the Aboriginal community.”
Fellow graduate Nancy Alone, 18, said she initially enrolled in the program to “kill time”, but now plans to complete her study in order to work in corrective services.
“I didn't actually think that I would love it ... but now it's my goal and it's a great opportunity to make a difference,” she said, adding that it was an “eye-opener” to see more women enrolled than men.
The pre-employment program is the first of its kind and enables graduates to obtain a certificate II in community services as a pathway towards becoming a correctional officer in NSW.
It supported graduates from across NSW, including Broken Hill, Macksville and Inverell.
NSW Minister for Corrections David Elliott said the program was part of a government commitment to provide economic opportunity in remote communities for Indigenous Australians.
“Tragically 25 per cent of inmates are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders,” he said. “I'm very committed to making sure we have as many mentoring programs as possible.
“It's become apparent to me as minister that you could release half the inmates in NSW if only they had proper mentoring... and Aboriginal Australians have a key [role] in that rehabilitation.”
Mr Elliott said contrary to popular belief, correctional officers did more than just “turn keys and deliver meals”.
“As a corrections officer, you have to be a counsellor, a disciplinarian, a mentor, a police officer, a social worker, weapons-trained and psychologically aware,” he said. “So when we call them the last line of defence it's not just a fancy title.”
Mr Elliott said if half of the graduates completed the full training to become corrections officers, he would consider that a success.
“Am I concerned not all of them are going to take on the opportunity? Yes I am,” he said. “I understand being a corrections officer is a very unique calling...but I challenge them all to be future commissioners.”
Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Sarah Mitchell said the program was an important step towards ensuring Aboriginal people living in regional communities had access to training and employment opportunities.
This article first appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald.