For most of us, education is the solid foundation to life. It teaches us, it nurtures us, it inspires us. Education can set us on the path that defines our adult lives and our careers.
But not everybody is fortunate enough to receive the type of education that many of us take for granted. Jesuit Social Services works with many marginalised members of our society, including people in and exiting prison.
The links between education and disadvantage – not just prison – are clear. Across all of our programs (in areas including justice, employment and training and mental health), just 13 per cent of people have completed high school and many have exposure to issues such as substance abuse and family violence.
It is a similar picture within the prison system in Victoria, Australia, where Jesuit Social Services is headquartered, and where just six per cent of male and 14 per cent of female prisoners have completed secondary school or higher education.
We know that without the foundation of education, many vulnerable people can find themselves dealing with a web-like structure of disadvantage. For example, a lack of education makes finding employment more difficult which in turn can lead to housing insecurity or homelessness, mental health problems or criminal activity.
Victoria’s recidivism rate is also at a 10-year high of almost 40 percent, meaning close to half the people who exit prison return. This comes at a significant cost to the state’s budget, and also at the expense of vital community services such as education, housing and mental health that work to prevent crime before it occurs. In order to break this cycle of disadvantage, poverty and lack of opportunities, we have partnered with Victoria’s correctional system and other community service organisations to create supported pathways into education, into community, and into employment for people who have been engaged with the justice system.
We work with men and women leaving prison to support them to identify their work opportunities and what they need to do to obtain a new position and to maintain their employment. With funding support provided by the Sisters of Charity in Australia, we also provide women exiting prison with one to one mentoring and support to re-enter their family and community life.
In addition to this we have assisted more than 400 people who have received a community work order in place of a prison term to not only contribute positively to the community, but to also improve their skills so that they have better opportunity to undertake further education or employment .
Our focus is on practical, hands-on project work with flexible assessment strategies to accommodate the various learning styles and needs of participants. We also employ skilled and qualified trainers and volunteers, who are carefully matched to each program. These programs help participants to gain real-world skills and qualifications that will assist them to find ongoing employment – in addition to the valuable experience they receive in working as part of a team, collaborating with others and developing a healthy routine.
Two examples of such programs are:
Fix the Cycle is a program for young men aged 18 to 25, who have had contact with the criminal justice system. Participants help to repair and assemble bicycles, which are later donated to community members in need, while developing mechanical skills, problem solving, planning and literacy and numeracy skills. Units of competency are also embedded into the program to formalise skills and learnings and create pathways to further employment. The Dandenong Drug Court Project is a community work program for adult men on community service orders. Participants work as a team to landscape the Drug Court’s garden and local surroundings, and like Fix the Cycle, units of competency are embedded into the program. As well as training in landscaping and horticulture, participants develop skills in teamwork and project management.
To understand how these programs literally change lives, we only need to look at the example of a young man who engaged with Fix the Cycle and gained ongoing employment as a motor mechanic at a major car dealer in addition to completing an apprenticeship. He says “my participation in the program gave me discipline, taught me about fixing things and mechanics and the importance of being on time.”
These are just two examples of innovative programs in which we partner with some of the most vulnerable members of the community, ensuring that their pathway out of prison and into the community is a positive one.
About the author: Julie Edwars is CEO of Jesuit Social Services, an Australian social change organisation working to build a just society. Julie was appointed the leader of the Core Group of the Mineral Resources GIAN in 2012.