A shortage of Chinese imports and a rise in furniture sales due to the pandemic are driving a production boom at one of Australia’s largest regional prisons.

Key points:

  • Companies are turning to prison industries to meet a shortfall in Australian-made products
  • Education, respect and gaining job skills are a key approach in rehabilitating prisoners
  • Working prisoners are given small payment to buy “chocolate, radios and soft drinks”

Handmade timber furniture, metal fabrication items and packaging for large retailers are rolling off the production line at Mount Gambier’s privately operated prison in South Australia.

Working for a small pay packet, inmates are learning skills to carve a new life away from crime, drug addiction and the realities of prison life.

“COVID-19 has opened up many more doors,” said prison industries manager Trevor Holtham.

He said there was growing local demand for Australian-made furniture and the facility was helping to supplement the gap in the market.

“One hundred per cent of the profits are poured back into the program,” Mr Holtham said.

“Some people now seem to have more money to buy furniture because they are not spending it on overseas holidays.”

He said creating jobs and educational opportunities within the prison were key strategies in breaking down barriers and changing lives.

About 200 prisoners are hand-chosen to work within the employment program.

Beautifully crafted timber furniture made by inmates at Mount Gambier Prison.(

ABC South East SA: Sandra Morello


Mr Holtham said some prisoners waited at the door in the morning to start work and staff treated them with respect.

“It would blow your mind when you see the operation we have here.”

A semi-trailer loaded with handmade furniture leaves the prison’s gates each week for retail showrooms in Melbourne.

“It is amazing when people come out and see what we do and how we interact with prisoners,” Mr Holtham said.

“We have a philosophy here; every contact creates an opportunity.”

Majority of inmates ‘happy to work’

Mr Holtman said the prison offered a workplace environment similar to those externally.

“We operate under a structured day where you get up in the morning, go to work and do a six-hour day,” he said.

Shift hours and the type of activities were modified to suit individual prisoners given the variety of ages and abilities.

Mr Holtham said the majority of inmates were happy to go to work and be productive.

“They are here for seven-days, 24 hours per day,” he said.

Trevor Holtham says earning respect and learning new skills are helping to rehabilitate inmates.(

ABC South East SA: Sandra Morello


Mr Holtham said the key outcome within the facility was rehabilitation.

“We are a 100-per-cent working prison,” he said.

“We encourage work or education. Who wants to sit around and do nothing?

“There are always going to be those ones who baulk the system, but you get that in life anywhere.”

Security paramount with dangerous tools

Conceding the prisoners were working with potentially dangerous tools such as “sharp shears” and welding equipment, Mr Holtham said everything was risk-assessed and security was the highest priority.

Prisoner Peter (not his real name), is an example of how gaining a qualification and having a purpose is helping to turn his life around.

Explaining he was not proud of his crime, Peter said making furniture was a daily escape from the realities of prison life.

A section of the expansive timber furniture-making hub at Mount Gambier Prison.(

ABC South East SA: Sandra Morello


The prisoner now has Certificate IV in business and a Certificate III in furniture making.

“When I am working in the furniture-making section, I feel like I am living a normal life,” Peter said.

He said it was important to have purpose and to have a reprieve from the cells.

“I have done projects making furniture for local governments — I feel like I am giving back to the community,” Peter said.

“I want to succeed and try new things. I need to learn.”

Mr Holtham said he was hopeful Peter could become a furniture maker when he was released.

“He is a high-end furniture maker,” he said.

Soft drinks and chocolate rewards for work

The prison’s acting deputy general manager Toby Burner said he was proud to work at the facility.

“But we try and rehabilitate people and get them back into society.”

All of SA’s prisons offer employment opportunities.

Each prisoner is paid a small allowance for each day they work and payments vary depending on skill level, responsibility and performance.

Prisoners can use the money on phone calls or purchasing items from the canteen such as chocolate bars, radios and soft drinks.