"A lot of people expect that as a young woman going into a maximum-security men’s prison, you’re going to have a really hard time, but actually my experience was positive."
Renee was only 23 when she got chatting to someone who was looking for volunteers to teach living skills in the prison.
I naïvely thought, ‘that sounds like fun’… it was a steep learning curve.
A lot of people expect that as a young woman going into a maximum-security men’s prison, you’re going to have a really hard time, but actually my experience was positive. Prisoners are grateful to do activities which break the boredom.
A few Corrections staff however, were difficult to work with. It’s such an extreme environment… they gave me a hard time and questioned the real benefit of cooking, art and living skills classes.’
Renee encountered Pathway Trust and was impressed by the positive impact of their rehabilitative programme. She eventually came to work for them, and has now been loving her job on Pathway’s Prisoner Reintegration Team for more than 11 years. Among other things, she helps released prisoners to prepare for job interviews.
Their confidence is almost always at rock bottom. They think people can tell they have just come out of prison. Some are even self-conscious about how they smell! More than once, I’ve heard a client say, ‘I know I’m a piece of shit.’ My job slowly chips away at that negative image they have of themselves.
I get asked how I can work with people who have done terrible things. I fully acknowledge that those things have often hurt other people, but that’s why I do what I do. I want to be part of something that is helping to make our community a safer place. I know when someone starts making healthier decisions and feels good about themselves and their actions, the whole community benefits.
That second chance:
I also support more than 70 employers of released prisoners. I have regular contact to hopefully iron out issues before they escalate. I also give feedback to employers, showing them all the benefits that they may not see, such as how a man’s family is benefiting now that he is in permanent work, or how his confidence is growing in other areas of his life.
I’m always impressed at how our volunteers fit mentoring prisoners into their busy lives. One of our longest serving volunteers, Steve, runs his own business, has a busy family with teenage boys and also teaches inside the prison. He currently has several mentor relationships on the go. Despite this, Steve continues to tell me, “if you have someone else who needs support, don’t hesitate to send them my way”. Mentors like Steve are worth their weight in gold. I have more female volunteer mentors than I need, but never enough men.
It’s so important for released prisoners to have positive role models and supports. Corrections have a fantastic reintegration team, but like every government department, their resources are stretched.
Best case scenario is that when a prisoner is released, they have a loved one waiting at the gate to take them home. Anxiety is low and they make positive connections with family, friends and community. Unfortunately, this is often not the norm.
Worst case scenario is that on their release day, you’ll see them walking down Old West Coast Road with all of their belongings. They may have been inside the wire for three months, or 15 years. The clothes they are wearing may be out of date, or don’t fit anymore.
Their accommodation plans can fall apart pretty quickly, it’s not uncommon for people to be sleeping rough within days of their release. It’s also common for them to have lost everything. Material possessions have disappeared, and social connections have likely faded as people have moved on with their lives or intentionally cut them off due to their offending. Sometimes, the only people left are all paid to be there, such as social workers, counsellors, probation officers.
That’s where our volunteers can make such a big impact. They are involved not because they are getting paid, but simply because they want to be.
Almost everyone in my experience comes out of prison with the same hope. They desire not to return. They have goals and dreams for themselves and their children. “I’m not going back,” “I don’t want to let my family down again,” “I want to be a good dad,” are all the common themes I hear.
Some are simply not ready for a different life. They don’t believe they can do it; or don’t think they deserve it. But there are others whose self-belief can be nurtured in the right direction… Witnessing that change is why I love what I do.