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Stefan helps inmates take the pledge

When Parklea Correctional Officer Stefan Uhrik was given the opportunity to work in the prison’s new Drug Recovery Wing, he jumped at the chance to be part of something different to help inmate’s rehabilitation.

Stefan joined the Parklea team in 2015 after running his own painting business for 10 years. He wanted to do something different, as painting was “a dirty job and physically demanding”.

He saw an advertisement for correctional officers and decided to apply.

“I gave it a crack and I ended up getting it. I have no regrets and I enjoy it,” Stefan said.

Stefan is among 25,000 people across Australia who manage offenders in prison and in the community who will be celebrated on National Corrections Day, Friday 19 January. The annual event recognises their valuable contribution to keep the community safe and rehabilitate offenders.

Over the past eight years Stefan has worked in various areas of Parklea. He became the wing supervisor of the Drug Recovery program nearly three years ago, as he was keen to work with inmates in a unique way.

“It sounded like an interesting role dealing with inmates with substance issues and I thought I could be more supportive,” Stefan said.

Many inmates at Parklea have issues with drug dependency and are often in prison for drug-related crimes.

To address this, MTC Australia, which operates Parklea on behalf of Corrective Services NSW, decided to try a program that helps offenders stay clean and turn their lives around. Parklea is the first prison to run a course of this kind in NSW.

The first cohort started in November 2020, and since then about 150 inmates have graduated from the course.

The men sign a pledge to stay off drugs while they’re in the 12-week program and undertake workshops on Narcotics Anonymous, creative writing, behaviour management, healthy lifestyles and Alpha, a religious program that encourages inmates to reflect on their lives, beliefs and meaning.

Stefan said in other wings, inmates tend to keep to themselves and don’t talk about their issues or feelings.

“When they first come in, they don’t talk to us officers much, but having the inmates there for up to 18 weeks, you build up a rapport with them,” Stefan said.

“Over time the barrier comes down and I have observed a change in their attitudes and behaviour, which I believe will translate into reduced reoffending.  

“It’s quite rewarding at the end of the program and when they thank you for the work you do. You don’t get that in other wings.”

Stefan said the changes in the inmates’ attitudes and behaviours over the program were significant.

“We aim to provide a supportive and rehabilitative environment for inmates who are trying to remain abstinent while in custody or are working towards abstinence.

“When they first come here they’re a bit iffy, but at the end they don’t want to leave, as they build relationships.

“They’re all in the same boat with the same substance issues, so they can talk to each other and not feel ashamed about it, as they’re doing the program together.”

Stefan said he had only received positive feedback from inmates and that the program was achieving its aims with its drug recovery and behaviour interventions.

“This program is something they’ve never been given an opportunity to participate in before,” Stefan said.

“Some inmates can barely write, but they come out with new skills, and the more skills they have in their pocket the better it is for them.

“In some, we can see the change they’re making, and if you plant the seed, it’s there forever.

“But at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to change that mindset.”

Inmates choose to participate in the program, which Stefan said demonstrates they are motivated to change.

Once such inmate is *Nathan, who has successfully completed the program and is now a mentor to others.

He said he was ready to make a change and having a safe place inside the prison to focus on recovery was very important.

“It’s so hard to be given an opportunity because of my profile as a former NSW Police Officer, but because I feel safe, it allows me to concentrate on my recovery and get lots out of it,” Nathan said.

“In this program we step outside the “green” and we treat each other with respect and I only felt welcome.

“We get to learn other boy’s talents and unless we come and do a program like this, you’d never know about it.”

Nathan said the correctional officers, including Stefan, were very professional and compassionate towards the inmates participating in the program.

“Without this positive support structure, this program would not be successful,” Nathan said.

“I cannot show enough gratitude to Stefan and the other officers for the relevance in the material delivered, which will stay with me well after I leave prison and I intend to pursue further studies.”

*Name has been changed.