A HISTORY OF REINTEGRATION
VACRO’s intention has always been to ease the transition back into community life. In 1872, the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society (PAS) was established in the wake of the 1871 Royal Commission into the Penal Establishments and Gaols. The Society’s aim was ‘to afford assistance to discharged Prisoners with a view to their restoration to a virtuous and honest mode of living’. Originally based in Melbourne’s Collins Street and then Russell Street, the early work of PAS focused on providing material aid to prisoners. At Christmas, volunteers, ‘filled close on 700 large paper bags with a pound of excellent fruitcake, a large block of cheese, some boiled sweets, a cake of chocolate, and a proportionate number of apples, oranges, bananas and apricots.’ Tobacco – ‘the most treasured possession of a man in confinement’ – was also included.
Responding to the needs of female prisoners in 1873 meant the establishment of a Ladies Branch Committee, an early acknowledgment that, ‘the mode of helping females must be widely different from that which might be successful in the case of males’. Now, VACRO provides gender responsive services for women as part of the Victorian Department of Justice Better Pathways Strategy, including mentoring and assistance with childcare and transport for women completing community based orders.
Changes in welfare philosophy and practice in the 1970s saw an expansion in self-help and voluntary groups in the sector, a diminution of paternalism - the state's interference - and increased recognition of the importance of respect for the dignity of people in need. At this time, the organisation changed its name to the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders to reflect a more contemporary approach.
VACRO has also responded to changing patterns of offending and community attitudes. For example, the emphasis of VACRO’s work gradually shifted from providing material aid and practical assistance to more intensive support through transition; community integration was identified as a challenge that required preparation pre-release and professional support and referral through transition.
In 1976, VACRO opened the Visitor’s House in Champ St Coburg outside of Pentridge Prison. For 7 days a week, the House acted as a focal point for visiting wives and families and was guided by the Family Welfare Group Committee headed by Mrs Anne Kantor. Then, in 1983, VACRO moved to another location near Pentridge in Gaffney St.
In the 1990s when the prison at Pentridge was closed, private prisons were established and Government funding structures changed considerably, VACRO moved again - this time to Spencer Street in Melbourne’s Central Business District, near the site of the new Melbourne Assessment Prison. The organisation continued to emphasise offender and family support, access to counselling, program support and referral. In 1999, VACRO moved into premises in Hardware Street on the fringes of Melbourne’s legal precinct and continues to refine its focus.
IMPACTS ON SOCIETY
Historically, this response took the form of services and supports for prisoners and their families, unpopular work that continues to the present day. Just as importantly, VACRO has engaged in a form of progressive dialogue with the Victorian community, responding to emerging need through development of new services, providing information and offering constructive ways in which we might choose to respond to crime. In particular, we have sought to draw attention to the damage done to individuals, families and communities when we do not respond early enough or effectively enough to prevent harm.
VACRO is an organisation that constantly questions, leads, learns and changes in response to new information and challenges from the Victorian community.