A Canberra company wants to fill the empty transitional release centre at Canberra's jail with prospective job-ready employees but it needs to identify inmates who genuinely want to forge a new life outside prison.
While the ACT has one of the worst recidivism rates in the country, there's no shortage of efforts - both within government and without - to fix the problem. A crucial part of that, the latest research says, is giving ex-detainees a job, stable housing and providing a better way of adjusting to life on the outside.
Research led by UNSW Canberra, which will be published on Friday in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, has recommended a dedicated and specialised employment team be set up within the prison.
The Justice and Community Safety directorate currently has one person in that role.
The recommendations draw from research conducted in 2019 that followed the lived experiences of 11 people after they were released from the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
"We asked them about their experiences with services inside the prison, their goals for next few months, and how things had been going for them since their release," researcher Dr Caroline Doyle said.
"Most had been in prison before, some of them several times.
"A clear message was that obtaining and maintaining employment post-release is connected to other challenges. For example, it's really difficult to work consistently if you have substance abuse issues, or poor mental and physical health, or you don't have access to suitable and stable housing."
It's an all-too-familiar story for the founding director of Worldview, Kurt Gruber, who has a pragmatic and grounded approach to helping ex-detainees after the company's foundation began working in this space four years ago. He believed there were multiple issues to grapple with, including low rates of prisoner literacy, a low work ethic, and the ever-present temptation of drugs.
Four years ago, in a short-term program largely funded by the Commonwealth, Worldview began with an intense and expensive hands-on Canberra trial, finding housing for their ex-detainee employees and having two full-time managers to support them.
But the program was costly and difficult to maintain, and the funding cycle too short when problems were entrenched and long-term.
A reassessment came during the COVID pandemic period and what has emerged now could deliver a more pragmatic pathway to help solve the recividism issue.
A series of online modules developed by Worldview is being beta-tested on a sample group of 10 ACT detainees, with the potential to further roll out the program across the Canberra prison population next year.
The modules deal with issues people on the "outside" understand, but which people who spend a long time within the prison system find challenging.
"There are 12 modules, ranging from how to navigate the government bureaucracy for things like MyGov and JobSeeker, through to social media, job readiness and having the right mindset in the first place to find a job and hold onto it," Mr Gruber said.
"Just social media alone is a huge challenge for people who have spent a long time in jail. They [the ex-detainees] don't understand how to engage and are easily provoked. They can be easily manipulated; social media can really ruin their lives because they haven't been exposed to it and know how to deal with it."
Worldview's foundation is funded through ACT Health, Skills Canberra and the Westpac Foundation, so its more recent primary focus has been on health-related adjustments for ex-detainees.
But there was a genuine desire to do more. Mr Gruber believed the transitional release centre at Symonston - which was largely empty - should be an important part of the process.
"You need to start getting a person ready to leave and find a job two years before they open the prison gate for them," he said.
"We've tried lots of different strategies but there has to be a balance struck between supporting people and letting them stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for themselves.
"For instance, you could use the transitional release centre as a base. They [ex-detainees] could head off to work each day but then go back at night and have somewhere stable to stay.
"Then over time they could save up enough money for a [rental] bond, and to buy their own furniture and find their own place, rather than have it gifted to them. That's when they value what they have, and what they've achieved."
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