As COVID-19 cases rose sharply and restrictions began increasing in March 2020, VACRO faced the challenge of working in new ways to continue supporting our participants.

It was a huge task to change almost everything about the way we worked, but we continued to operate almost all of our regular services and activities, in slightly different ways, and in strict adherence with public health guidelines.

This summary of our response to the pandemic is extracted from our 2020 Annual Report. You can read the report in full below.

VACRO 2020 Annual Report

In-prison programs

Our ReLink program, which prepares participants in prison for reintegration back to the community, continued operating under modified conditions. Our reintegration coordinators conducted one-on-one sessions instead of the usual group sessions, which became impossible due to physical distancing protocols. Delivering these sessions our staff followed strict hygiene requirements to ensure the health and safety of all participants, including temperature checks on arrival, strict sanitation protocols and – as the second wave loomed in June – the wearing of masks.

We continued operating this way until the commencement of stage four lockdown just after the end of the financial year, when the program was required to move online as the second wave of COVID-19 hit.

Our ReLink staff were some of the last people to leave prisons after second wave lockdowns were announced. They followed our Time to Work Employment Service engagement officers and Parents and Families Engagement Program counsellors, who had moved to remote delivery some weeks earlier. 

It was a huge job for our staff, moving from face-to-face delivery to online sessions conducted over video conferencing apps. They had to modify the content of their programs and develop new techniques for building rapport, all while setting up home offices, often in cramped environments with family members nearby.

Different teams faced different challenges as well – our Time to Work Employment Service staff lacked the ability to sit alongside their clients as they told their stories, which made it more difficult for them to learn the small details that could strengthen the paperwork submitted to JobActive service providers; our ReLink reintegration coordinators couldn’t rely on the group dynamic to start the kind of dynamic peer-supported conversations that can inspire and encourage participants; and our family counsellors found it difficult to read their clients’ physical cues when conducting sessions via video calls.

But in spite of all of these obstacles, our team members have continued to make breakthroughs and connections with their participants, all from the comfort (or confines) of their homes. 

Community-based programs 

Our ReConnect case managers continued to offer the full range of post-release support to participants throughout the pandemic, but with greater use of technology to augment the more limited opportunities for face-to-face contact.

Since March, staff and participants have worn masks and practised physical distancing. We continued to offer our day-of-release pick-up service from the prison gate, with vehicles cleaned and sanitised before and after every trip. 

In the community, most of our outreach to participants was conducted via phone or video link. However, as other community services stepped away from face-to-face support and used technology to connect in response to COVID-19, ReConnect participants valued human interaction more and proactively reached out for more time with their ReConnect case managers. We found innovative ways to make this work, taking physically distanced walks on the beach or setting up a card table in a participant’s front yard while they remained inside. 

While the complementary services we work with (for example, mental health clinics and drug and alcohol treatment facilities) were closed to foot traffic, our case managers supported participants to make and attend phone appointments with these services. 

One positive outcome of the pandemic was that some participants chose to take up education and training courses newly delivered online. VACRO was able to support these participants by providing financial support for laptops, wifi dongles and software packages to ensure they had the technology required to complete their studies.

The biggest disruption to our services was suffered by Second Chance Cycles and Second Chance Coffee, both of which were forced to close as COVID-19 hit in April. Second Chance Coffee initially closed as foot traffic at the Sunshine Magistrates’ Court dwindled, and has since stayed closed due to physical distancing requirements. Thankfully, VACRO received JobKeeper payments for our three kiosk employees, who continued to work for VACRO on social enterprise development programs during the kiosk’s closure.

Second Chance Cycles was able to reopen in May as case numbers dropped, but then re-closed in June as the second wave began to spike. 

Video Visits

The other casualty of COVID-19 was our Aboriginal Family Visits Program, which provides financial support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to visit their family members in Victorian prisons. When in-person prison visits ceased in March, the program went into abeyance, with the exception of two cases where we supported people to pick up their family members on the day of release. 

Luckily, Corrections Victoria was able to reduce the pain of losing in-person visits by purchasing several hundred tablets for the entire prison system. Using the tablets, people in prison were able to connect with loved ones in the community via video call. In some cases, people were able to have virtual visits with family they hadn’t seen in years, but many of these people were unsure about how to use the technology. VACRO answered the call – at short notice, we set up an advice line to coach community members through the process of downloading and testing the technology needed for the calls.  

Head office

Our comprehensive response to the impact of COVID-19 saw the closure of our Hardware Street head office in late March, with our reception phone and email operating as usual from home.

Our 15 head office-based staff adapted quickly to remote work. To ensure their health and wellbeing, we supported staff with the tools and technology they need to work comfortably and safely from their homes. Adapting quickly to new ways of working brought on by the pandemic leaves VACRO well-positioned for new and more nimble ways of working in the future.

While the pandemic meant we were temporarily unable to visit participants at home, repair recycled bicycles in our workshop, or facilitate group goal-setting sessions in prisons, it didn’t affect our commitment to our participants and their families.

During the pandemic, every member of our community made sacrifices and took steps to ensure our collective health and safety. The challenges presented by this pandemic show the importance of strong, connected communities, and reveal some of the most urgent challenges of transition and reintegration for people leaving prison. We are all connected more deeply than we perhaps once realised, and work supporting people to reintegrate into strong, supportive communities is vital.