A seed was planted
There was a priest who was the assistant prison chaplain when I was inside for armed robbery. One day we were sitting in my cell chatting when he said to me “Stan, I want you to give some thought to what would be needed when men are coming out of jail, like a half way house. I have a couple of barrister friends who have noticed first hand there is no support of anyone after release.” This was late 1982.
So I set to work and thought hard, and I decided to make an exercise of it. I wrote out everything that someone may need, a site for the house, food, clothing and access to resources generally. I did this because I saw it as a challenge and it got me thinking about the lack of post-release support.
Upon my release in 1983 I had no intentions of starting a half-way house. I did get involved with Prison Fellowship who kindly accommodated me and gave me some work. My main job there was to keep producing The Epistle, a magazine published and distributed for the prison population Australia-wide, and areas of the Criminal Justice Network.
However, I still had the desire to help other prisoners who were in my situation and soon after I moved into a self-contained flat in a Carmelite monastery where my brother was a priest. Then someone I knew, Robbie, got out of prison after eight years. He had nowhere to go. Over the weekend, Robbie stayed with me and I decided that now was as good a time as any to find a rental property for situations like this, and as a home base for the magazine. I needed to find somewhere that was central that the guys could get to, like Fitzroy, Carlton or Brunswick. At that time another ex-prisoner I knew named Greg had just been evicted from his property and a social-worker, who was his friend, also needed somewhere to stay.
The first house - Napier Street, Fitzroy
The concept of the house, a double story terrace was : Separate accommodation for myself and the others upstairs, the bottom section was to be both the base for the production of the Epistle Magazine and a 'Drop-in' facility for newly-released men and women, who were in crisis, needed support or advocacy regarding dealing with government departments, agencies, or Court matters and appearances. So we got a private rental house in Napier St. Fitzroy, in October 1983. We shared the rent but I paid the majority of it.
From that time people just kept coming in, as well as supporters coming on board to help. I still had a lot of contact with prisoners through the magazine and the address was advertised as somewhere these guys could go for crisis accommodation and help and I had an unpaid but qualified social worker as a helper.
At one point it was so crowded, I had partiitions erected to divide my bedroom into sleeping quarters for 3 people!
When the house was full, we used to accommodate guys in boarding houses across inner Melbourne. We were literally inundated with people!
I never worried about how many guys were in the house at one time and it never affected me who was coming and going. There was always help on hand from these guys who would do anything for us because we were providing a roof over their heads.
The more men we took in, the more support we seemed to get from different people and agencies.
Word of mouth saw us being recognized for what we were doing and thus more supporters emerged as time went on. Another priest who was a friend once questioned me about what I was doing.
We went to have dinner in Chinatown one Sunday night and a group of people got stuck into me…..They asked me what I was doing. They had heard of the place and knew I’d been in jail for so many years.
I just said “Look Father…if it’s God’s work then it will succeed, if it isn’t then it will fail so let’s leave it at that.” And we did.
How Napier Street was bought
One Saturday, our landlord came in and told us that the house we were renting was going up for sale. I told him I had $500 and was interested in buying the house. I had absolutely no idea how I could come up with that sort of money by the settlement date.
We used to have prayer meetings on a Thursday night at McCormick house. Well, the night before the settlement was due, one of the guys walked in just after the meeting had finished to help with the dishes. We got talking and I told him how I needed $4500 by tomorrow (Friday) morning or there would be no house. This guy asked if he could use the phone. So I let him into the front office and left him there. He came back after a long while and said “Sorry Stan, Thought I could help but no luck.” We prayed about it and had a cuppa.
Around 8:45am Friday morning the same guy walked in with a woman who I would describe as mysteriously calming and spiritual. I sat down with them and she explained that she would give me the $4500 needed to pay off the rest of the deposit on the house.
Just as she said that, the telephone rung and it was the landlord wanting to know if we had the money! I said to him “I have the money. A lady is paying for it and I am looking at her right now!!” So I put the woman on the phone and the settlement was finalized!
At that time, a catholic nun, Sister Clare was away at a weekend conference. A lady came up to her and asked if she would take her to the prison in Bendigo and help her deliver a present to one of the prisoners. This lady was connected to a group who used to go and visit the prisoners regularly in Bendigo. That was when Sister Clare came on board with us and was soon visiting prisons with us and did so for many years. Recently she was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her work in prisons and specifically with sex offenders. She has now retired to her Order in the U.K.
People were so generous. Once when a friend was visiting, he heard the story of a guy who had just got out of prison. I told him, “If we can get him to South Australia then he has good support from his family over there. He asked “how much is the fare over to South Australia?” I replied” the cheapest is $98. With that, he opened his wallet and pulled out $100 and put it on the table. He then added another $20 to it saying “We had better give this guy a cup of tea along the way!” He would bring in tracksuits and clothes etc. along with other members of Prison Fellowship who dropped off all kinds of different stuff. People gave to us all the time.
Miracles seemed to happen all the time.
One day there was a guy from England who just got out of prison and only knew 2 people who both lived in Canberra. He was homeless, so needed to get to Canberra.
That very day some volunteers came in and handed me an envelope. It was from an ex prisoner who had used the service before and who said he felt he had to give back, and that I had to use the $300 in the envelope personally. Well that was a problem solved.
We never had the money when the time came to pay the rent, but we always got it somehow in the nick of time, often given as a surprise gift, and sometimes to the cent, it felt as if we had divine protection!
We realized we needed to get a committee of management established, so it was a case getting hold of strategic people. Someone suggested we get a Judge on our committee. We asked one, who suggested his colleague who happened to be head of the Parole Board and was interested in what we were doing. Judge Alastair Nicholson was his name. We invited him over to see what we were doing.
Well just before he arrived I got everyone up and kicked some people out and ran around in a mad rush. So Alastair turns up in his chauffer driven car. We were in the front office area of my house when I showed him a plan of what I had in mind.
I am just about to show him around when one of the ex prisoners comes rolling into the office. He was about 16 stone and it was obvious he had been out and had a big night the night before. It was not really the impression I was trying to make. I moved off quickly to show Alastair around the place and explained about our activities and vision for the future.
Alastair wrote back not long after this visit to say he was happy to put his name to this project. He was our Chairman then later Patron and, ACSO is forever grateful for his guidance, support and contribution over the years. He retired in 2010.
"I didn’t realize it then but I did think afterwards that I had to draw on everything I have ever done before, from setting up the office and my sales experience too…. I utilized all that and my faith too! I think I would have done better if I had paced myself but if I had stopped and thought about it wouldn’t have been spontaneous and evolved the way that it did".
A message to ACSO from Stan about the future.
"Keep doing what you're doing! You are doing a great job, really good!
Well done. You have carried the legacy. It's a place to be proud of. Every day is exciting. Look forward to the future!"
Stan now lives in Castlemaine but remains in touch with ACSO. His work in the establishment of ACSO will always be remembered and honoured. We have regular Inductions for new staff at ACSO and they are always inspired by the stories of the early days, and of Stan's work and vision.