Ryley Jackson first entered a prison as a high school student, curious about the stories of people inside. Today, he’s joined Vacro at Port Phillip Prison to support people to make plans for good lives after their release. Here, he tells us more about his community-based work history, what he hopes to achieve with participants, and what he’s reading (and why it’s true crime).

Hi, Ryley! Can you tell us a bit more about your background? 

I grew up in a small rural area near the South Australian border. I had a real interest in psychology and legal studies. I moved to Melbourne to study psychology and forensic sciences. When I finished, I wanted experience in the field – but my degree didn’t have placements, so I found it difficult to find work. I started volunteering with the Australian Community Support Organisation on their AOD/COATS program, doing alcohol and drug assessments and referrals for people in contact with the criminal justice system. 

That turned into a job doing outreach-based case management with people on supervision orders or individual support packages. After that I applied to the Jesuit Social Services (JSS), where I worked on the ReConnect program for three years. I got lots of experience and I thoroughly enjoyed working with that cohort. The Maribyrnong Community Residential Facility opened in response to COVID-19, and JSS was engaged to provide transitional support to residents, so I moved across to Maribyrnong for 12 months. 

You’ve just started at VACRO this week – welcome! How did you come to Vacro? 

I have always had a lot of respect for the organisation. I’d noticed a vacancy on ReLink advertised previously – I didn’t apply for it, I regretted it, and once this opportunity came up I was really motivated to try and secure the position.

Through my work on ReConnect I’d had a lot of contact with the VACRO ReLink reintegration coordinators, and they’re lovely people – you can gain an insight into the culture of the organisation. I thought it would be a good fit for me. 

You’ll be working at Port Phillip Prison, which is maximum-security. What motivates you to work in a location like that, which can be intimidating? 

For people who haven’t been to Port Phillip, I would explain Port Phillip and Barwon as the closest we’ve got to an American-style prison – like they’d see in movies and on TV. It’s high-risk and maximum-security. I think I’ve had enough exposure not to feel intimidated by the place. But working with this cohort, you’re coming from a supportive angle. They’ve always been really receptive. In outreach settings, like in the car, they can have a moment of frustration, but I never felt that frustration is directed towards me. It’s rewarding to support people during difficult times in their lives to improve their outcomes and opportunities. 

Do you think there’s an idea that it’s easy to leave prison? 

There’s probably a misunderstanding of how much support is actually provided. Many people may assume that there is a significant financial or housing support provided, or maybe even believe that some people are undeserving of support. They’re viewed quite negatively. Unjustly so, I think. We work within a rehabilitative model, and the majority of people in prison will be released at some point – it’s actually beneficial for the community to have the best possible rehabilitation and transition into the community.  

You’ve only just joined ReLink, but can you tell us what a typical workday might involve? 

ReLink is part of the Corrections Victoria Reintegration Pathway, like ReConnect, so I have some understanding of the typical responsibilities. It’ll be liaising with prison staff to arrange groups, running modules to support people along their pre-release journey. It’s eye-opening to see it from the other side. The main difference, running groups, really interested me. 

I’m really excited about working in a pre-release capacity. At ReConnect, you could see how some individuals had not foreseen some circumstances that may have impacted their transition into the community, or for whatever reason hadn’t been able to complete ReLink. It seemed to be to their detriment, as they had not been able to develop a transition plan. It’s interesting to see how much support we can give someone pre-release.  

You mentioned working with prison staff. Is relationship-building a big part of your work?  

Very much so. You’re based at the location. In a prison your relationships can make or break how easy things are. And the pathway is mean to be collaborative – we’re working quite closely with Assessment and Transition Coordinators. Really, for a successful transition, most people need a range of support services. 

What do you hope your role at Vacro will achieve? 

Coming from the other side, I hope we can make the best possible plans. With experience working with people in the community I hope I can imply some of the realities of what things will be like, and get them to reflect on whether their choices and plans are the best possible things in place for them. In a sentence, it’s: to improve people’s understanding of their own reintegration and assist them in developing plans for success. 

What’s something about you we won’t see on your CV? 

I really enjoy the outdoors – camping, boating and fishing. I like reading, particularly true crime and autobiographies. 

Is true crime not too close to home with your work?! 

It can provide a bit of insight into what led up to someone’s offending. The story behind it really interests me. My interest in working with people, with psychology, maybe stems from being a reader. I love hearing people’s stories and backgrounds.  

When I was at school, our school had a program with Barwon Prison for people studying legal studies or psychology. You’d go to a prison and people would come and sit down and tell you about prison life and their personal stories. I signed up each year. Quite often you got people with a range of different offences. They had a lot of remorse but could give a lot of insight. I don’t truly believe people are just good or bad. I’m interested in why people make mistakes.  

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