As the VACRO team gathered for our quarterly all staff meeting in Melbourne on 2 March, we were aware of the rising threat posed by COVID-19. Staff chatted about the dire news from overseas, but for the most part we were unaware of the sheer scale of what was to come. 

Within weeks, our head office would be closed and working conditions altered for all of our staff, whether they were providing counselling, running pre-release programs, supporting participants post-release or working in one of our social enterprises.

This summary of our year and view to the future is extracted from our 2020 Annual Report. You can read the report in full below.

VACRO 2020 Annual Report

The effects of COVID-19 have been greatly varied – the prison population dropped from 8200 on the eve of the first lockdown to less than 7000 a few months later as arrests plummeted and the courts kept people out of prison where possible.

Some of our participants found post-prison life easier in an environment where they could ease back into a society that was drastically quieter than usual, and we were able to house a lot more people thanks to a range of emergency funding measures designed to keep people safe during COVID-19.

But for others it was much harder. We found our participants reaching out for more time with their case managers as they struggled to adjust, and many services they relied on were shut or only operating online.

As the second wave hit mid-year, our staff had to pivot to working from home, trying to build rapport with a client sitting in a room at the prison using a tablet to chat via video. It wasn’t easy to upend the way they worked. In many cases, they had to take a face-to-face group program and turn it into a one-on-one program delivered via video. But they did it without complaint, just happy that they were still able to help out.

It’s a testament to our people – and to Corrections Victoria’s flexibility – that we were able to keep our reintegration services running throughout these strange times.

In many ways, we will emerge stronger from COVID-19.

Technologically, we’ve crammed years of change into a few (long!) months, and now we are busy building on that change to create new ways of doing business while keeping what’s always been great about VACRO. 

We’re talking with our stakeholders about what we’d like to keep post-COVID-19 – while our staff are itching to get back into the prisons, we would like to continue some of the one-on-one work we’ve done in lockdown, and we’ll continue to utilise technology to make our programs stronger.

And we’ve been able to plan for the post-COVID-19 world.

We know that finding a job will be more difficult and more important than ever for those leaving prison, and that families will struggle even more with mental health as they try to overcome the trauma of a loved one’s incarceration and return to community.

On the other hand, many problems will be just as urgent as they were pre-COVID-19, especially the struggles that people with disability face as they navigate both the justice and NDIS systems. While restricted to our homes, we’ve been developing new concepts to address these problems.

It has been a year like no other, but fundamentally our participants face the same challenge they always have – to create new beginnings for themselves and their families. And, as always, we will be focused on facilitating that goal over the coming year.

Marius Smith, CEO

Scott Wlossak, Chair