Judy Wright has worked with some of Victoria’s toughest and most complex prison leavers, both within prisons and with community services. Including Vacro – she first worked with us years ago as a case manager on our post-release program, ReConnect, before returning in mid-2021 as our Specialist Housing Coordinator. Here, she shares her story and tells us how she helps get people into homes after prison – and gives us a peek at the donkeys that live in her backyard.

Hi, Judy! Can you tell us a bit more about your background and experience?

I was born in Footscray and grew up in Robinvale before moving to Queensland. I was the youngest of eight children, and didn’t have the most positive childhood. I lived with put-downs and low self-esteem, so growing up, I was determined to make something of my life. I married, divorced, had four beautiful children, worked at the IGA and as a self-employed cleaner, and then as a self-employed family day care provider in a little rural township. I met my current husband and moved to Bundaberg, where I worked in disability and youth residential facilities. I also volunteered as an outreach support worker, helping the homeless. Hearing the stories of how people became homeless was a turning point for me. I felt I should do more for people less fortunate than myself. My family returned to Victoria, where I worked with young people at risk in Bendigo. I’ve since worked as a prison officer in Loddon, Tarrengower and Langi Kal Kal prisons, as a case manager with the Department of Justice and Community Safety, and as a case manager on Vacro’s ReConnect program.

You’ve come back to Vacro after four years to take on the new role as our Specialist Housing Coordinator. We’re thrilled to have you back! Tell us about the role.

It’s a brand-new role, which is exciting – I’m hoping to be able to shape and expand it.

The role explores a range of housing options to try and secure housing for a person before their release. It involves anything from liaising with prison and community corrections staff and ReConnect case managers pre-release, travelling to locations to view potential properties, linking up with participants in custody over Zoom; attending meetings with external providers, and discussing with real estates the benefits of considering Vacro participants for a rental property.

Give us your pitch! Why would a person who’s just left prison be a good tenant?

The Vacro client is supported and case managed by a reputable organisation who can vouch for them. They’ve got all this external support and are linked in with services – they’re not just any joe blow who we don’t know where they’ve come from. The advantage to a real estate is the wraparound support, the stable income, the ReConnect case manager. The agent can always pick up the phone to me or the VACRO case manager if there’s any problem. You take a bit of a risk with whoever you get into a property, but with our participants, we can prove who we are and what we do.

You’ve had experience as a case manager to people leaving prison – how has that background informed your housing role?

Being in ReConnect, I knew first-hand how frustrating it was not having housing. It’s just so heartbreaking to see people with a couple of nights in a motel and then out on the streets. I had one girl who was out in a swag. That can’t keep happening. I brushed with homelessness in Queensland – I understand the anxiety and stress they’re feeling when they come out of prison with nowhere to live.

How did you decide to work with Vacro?

I first came across Vacro when I was working at Langi Kal Kal Prison. Working inside the prison, I could see how many people were falling through the cracks – not getting the support they needed; leaving prison with nothing. It was heartbreaking to see them standing out the front of the prison with no one to pick them up. I put myself in their shoes and thought if it were me, I’d want someone to meet me at the gate. That’s the impact Vacro had on me; that’s why I joined.

You’ve done a lot since we last worked together – you spent time in Bairnsdale with the Department of Justice and Community Safety, managing complex, high-risk people on court orders. And then you worked at Corella Place.

I worked with a lot of sexual and violence offenders. I’m interested in what makes them tick. What makes them feel as though they have to commit those crimes – so premeditated, so calculated, so sneaky. What makes them tick? A lot of people in prison were running amok, doing pretty nasty stuff – but it’s impulsive, drug-related; people have fallen on hard times and have to rob to survive. These people are totally calculated. The psychology side of that is more what interested me.

Did you ever come up with any theories?

No. I worked with senior clinicians in Forensicare and got some insight – early childhood trauma is a majority of it; previous traumas. Some with many complexities. It’s very interesting, but very intense. My work at Corella Place was a great opportunity to learn about managing sex offenders post-sentence, but it wasn’t for me. I kept thinking about Vacro… and then I saw this role advertised. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I may be able to come back, it does really feel like home’. I feel very blessed to be back.

We’re lucky to have you back! How do you hope your new housing role will have an impact?

A massive impact would be to be able to find someone a home. That’s the ultimate end goal. If I can turn around and see we’ve managed to get that person a private, long-term rental, rather than rooming houses or in and out of motels. It’s creating a new world for a person who’s coming out of prison having nothing. It’s a new path. I know it changes their lives – I’ve seen the expressions on the faces of people who know they’ve got someone to live. I’m determined to make some pretty big impacts. I’m really pumped. It will be challenging, but I think it’s going to be great.

Finally, what’s something about you that we wouldn’t learn from reading your resume?

I love everything outdoors – riding my horse, camping, and travel. I’m an animal lover, so anything I can do to help animals in any way, I will. My husband and I have helped rehome many horses and donkeys in the past, to wonderful homes. We’re blessed to have owned donkeys for many years – they’re very quirky and intelligent animals.

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