Breaking out of the cycle

Breaking out of the cycle


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UQ-accredited farm officer Geoff Walker, deputy general manager Chris Burgess, Palen Creek Correctional Centre, and farm officer Paul Wimmer, atop Punishment Hill, overlooking the facility.

UQ-accredited farm officer Geoff Walker, deputy general manager Chris Burgess, Palen Creek Correctional Centre, and farm officer Paul Wimmer, atop Punishment Hill, overlooking the facility.

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NESTLED in the mountainous slopes of Mount Barney and riding the border of NSW sits one of Queensland agriculture's best-kept secrets.

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NESTLED in the mountainous slopes of Mount Barney and riding the border of NSW sits one of Queensland agriculture's best-kept secrets.

For more than 80 years, inmates from Palen Creek Correctional Centre near Rathdowney have been studying and producing some of southern Queensland's top commercial beef cattle.

The secret: hard work and dedication to the future of Australian agriculture, and the hope of a better life once outside prison walls.

Built on 210 hectares of prime land, the centre has partnered with UQ Gatton to provide an opportunity for inmates to study a certificate III in agriculture, with the course focusing on beef cattle production and pasture management.

Deputy general manager Chris Burgess says the low security farm is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for prisoners to develop their skills before release.

"The men are here for all different offences and they're coming towards the end of their sentence, so our primary role here is to rehabilitate prisoners to ensure when they leave the correctional system, they don't re-offend. The work program is certainly a part of that development," Mr Burgess said.

"We get a lot of fellas coming through here who have never even ridden a horse before, so this is a real life-changer for them, and suddenly they realise they love the country lifestyle, and most importantly, it helps to prevent them going back to the community that put them into jail in the first place.

"It breaks that cycle."

Two accredited officers have been chosen to train the inmates over the four months it takes to complete the course, which focuses on dietary requirements and health.

"Whether it's mustering or planting a crop, there is always something to be done here."

The superbly designed property features a waste water-treatment plant, up to 20 dams, and a natural spring which is piped down through sand filters to feed the facility.

Inmates work together to muster and handle cattle in the race. Click on the image to see the full gallery.

Treated effluent from the prison is used to irrigate the pasture through a permanent system consisting of 50 sprinkler heads, with Palen Creek inmates already preparing to plant 8ha (20 acres) of oats for winter.

The winding hills provide a seemingly endless escarpment of natural pasture, predominantly green panic, which the 230 head of Charbray cattle are fed on year round.

"We started here with very humble beginnings," Mr Burgess said, adding the certificate III program now runs up to 120 breeders.

"Recent rain has been very good for us here – we've seen the pasture spring back to life – but of course we also produce lucerne hay as a backup."

Weighing the cattle regularly and ensuring a high-quality diet before sale is all part of the certificate program, but also gives the team a head start for the local show circuit.

"The centre has shown cattle at the Beaudesert Show for the past five years with varying success, and it's certainly paid off recently when we were awarded grand champion in the prime beef section.

"Our show steer weighed 532kg at the time and ended up being sold to Jack Purcell Meats to make $1070 – so recognition like this certainly spurs us on.

"The feedback we've had from going along to shows and selling at Beaudesert has been very positive, with the centre selling one pen of heifers to a man, only for us to come back the following year and be beaten into second place by him – he'd come back with them and won.

"It was actually really terrific because it means we are putting a good quality product out into the community and it's from good breeding stock.

"We usually sell at Beaudesert and the prices are down at the moment, but that's just the nature of the beast."

One Palen Creek inmate and graduate of the certificate III course said the program was a great opportunity to learn something new and was a positive step in his life, particularly post-release.

"It opens up a whole spectrum of employment opportunities for when I walk out the gate," the man said.

"Before I studied, I'd just look at the cattle and think 'dinner', but you learn a whole lot more than you ever thought possible, like the way they digest, and about their breeding and genetics.

"For me, the horse riding has been the most enjoyable part – getting out and doing some proper mustering is always a nice experience.

"I've now become the farm industry overseer here, so I have added responsibilities, and being a city boy, that's not something I could have just jumped into."

The inmate said learning about what to feed cattle to increase weight and administering injections had shown him there were many different aspects to where our food comes from.

Aiming to become as self-sustaining as possible, the centre also operates a market garden where fruit and vegetables have been planted for use by the facilities kitchen.

Mr Burgess said the farm was also able to take advantage of the drop in cattle prices last year, with the centre purchasing a number of Brahman heifers from Rockhampton and trucking them home to improve the commercial beef herd genetics.

"The agricultural program here is incredibly important to us, and jail is full of people who have done some bad things – stupid things – but it's not full of bad people.

"We like to think we can provide a redirection and help the men make something of themselves so everyone wins – and having UQ come on board has been terrific.

"We want the men to leave here with skills they never had before and a different outlook on life, and hopefully they follow through with their study and become a part of the beef industry."

The story Breaking out of the cycle first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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