A little while back, the Department of Justice entered into a program with food charity Fareshare, where I volunteer as a kitchenhand. It allowed people on community service to work down their hours in our kitchen.

Ice addicts with kitchen knives. The hazard was real, but the greater truth is that we had very little trouble. Any transgression meant not being allowed back. And our shift became so popular we had to start limiting numbers.

Friday night or Saturday afternoon, dedicated for community corrections orders only. I did Friday, which was overwhelmingly male. Start at 5 and finish at 9, half an hour for dinner. Up to twenty-four participants with 80% retention week-to-week.

On any given shift 5-10 had seen time in prison, 1 or 2 straights who had maybe returned from holiday to a massively compounding fine, and the rest of the group somewhere in between.

They weren’t required to do the Fareshare shift; they could have chosen to sort through donated clothing or remove graffiti or some other less consistently laborious option.

But we managed to attract a crew willing to give up their Friday nights to stand on their feet and work with continual effort, despite some of them having also worked on their feet during the day. They took so well to it, our output started to exceed that of regular shifts.

Usually three stations; cutting meat or vegetables, making sausage rolls and quiches, and bagging casserole. I maintained the pace at stations, while the chef oversaw and tended to the ovens.

Neither of us proselytized. We just kept things light, played great music and diverted attention back to the food task. Eventually it was running so smoothly I was able to focus on outliers in the group.

Being the only volunteer in the room, I was easy prey.

The chef and DoJ officer were both paid, which meant I was initially the most vulnerable in the eyes of some participants. I was the one working alongside them, and I was the one hearing conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear. At first it was a test to see if I would lag to their case officers.

Then it was used as a way to try and impress. I never gave them my surname, nor met with them outside the program, nor did I ever ask why they were there. A familiarity was established, and trust was built.

Dinner played a significant role in the program’s success. Chef would take her pick from the soon-to-be sausage-roll filler and cook up a storm, more often than not a roast with potatoes and vegetables and other side dishes.

After one meal, I was talking with a small group of ex-cons. I called one of them a champ and the conversation stopped cold. 

I had called him a pedophile.

In prison the word ‘champ’ is short for ‘child tamperer’. He quietly corrected me and the conversation moved on.

Two individuals stand out.

Steve was introduced to me via footage of him attacking a cameraman outside the courts, shown to me by those same ex-cons.

He arrived the next week; lean and taut, with face tattoos, a quick mind, a foul mouth and a genuinely dangerous smile. Closely aligned with outlaw culture, he was immediately the alpha of the group.

After a while, he established himself running a station. He turned out to be an easy leader, and delivered consistently against our not-insignificant daily KPIs meeting targets of over a million cooked meals a year.

This wasn’t so much a power play as something else: Steve had decided he was not going to make stupid mistakes for other people anymore. Not necessarily going straight, but a recent child had made a significant impact on his considerations. He had identified his way out, and was saving rapidly towards it.

During his time with us he behaved impeccably; watching his mouth around the females, never posturing, never antagonistic. Nor did he lose stature amongst his own for working instead of slacking. He just did it and downplayed it really well. There was a court date some months ahead, with incarceration pretty much guaranteed.

A reference from us helped keep Steve out of prison.

Natalie told me her life was 24/7 hell, and that Fareshare was the highlight of her week.

Participating in the program from the start, she assimilated well into the group with her world-weary sarcasm ending invariably on an upbeat note. She could hold her own among the men and happily got on with her tasks.

She proved a natural in our kitchen, and became increasingly heartened at our treating her with respect and encouragement as she came to realise a burgeoning capability in this setting.

Once her allotted hours were completed, she returned to Fareshare as a supervisor for the DoJ shift, alternating with me on Friday nights.

Then others started following her example once they had finished their hours.

Natalie is now paid to run the Friday night kitchen for Fareshare and the Department of Justice.

Eventually I was redundant. This model had become self sufficient, delivering 360 degrees of social equity albeit it at a very small scale.

It was an entirely satisfying thing to have been a part of.

Over 18 months I dealt with about 60 participants for approximately 200 hours.
90% of these people had no interest in changing their lives.
They just wanted to work down their hours and get out of there.

The rest were either Steve or Natalie. Someone who had already changed, and needed a hands-off approach; or someone who came to believe in change during our program, and needed our nurturing. Or somewhere in between.

Nguyen became a paid employee of Fareshare after completing his community service. He is presently one of the supervisors on the regular shift where I volunteer as a kitchenhand.

Antony presented an extended version of this experience at Mumbrella’s 2020 MSIX, Powerhouse, Sydney.