‘I know how hard it is’: Eleni Psillakis on rehabilitating female ex-offenders

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Eleni Psillakis has not only defied the odds of a sobering statistic but dedicated her career to lowering it. 

The first generation Symi-Australian says it all began at her first full-time job post-release when her draft of a four-day program for ex-offenders caught the eye of the founder of a global non-for-profit organisation. 

“[The founder] asked, ‘What is your interest in people with a record trying to get employment?’, and I replied, ‘I am one of those and I know how hard it is’,” Psillakis tells the Greek Herald

“She said, ‘Right! I want someone with that lived experience working on this program.” 

“I’m just glad she saw me for my skills and experience rather than the record.” 

Eleni Psillakis runs the Success Works program from Marrickville in Sydney’s inner-west.(Photos: Supplied/Dress for Success)

Psillakis has run the Success Works program within Dress for Success for two and a half years from an office in Marrickville in Sydney’s inner-west.

Success Works helps female ex-offenders regain financial independence by offering professional and personal workshops. 

In 2018, Dress for Success helped over 15,000 women in Sydney re-enter the workforce in less than a decade. 

Psillakis knows all too well that the effort this took was no walk in the park. 

“I’ve had women say to me, ‘This is too hard, at least in jail I get a roof over my head’,” she says. 

“900 women in 2019 were released into homelessness from prison. It costs the government more money to keep someone in prison than to support them into employment.” 

Eleni Psillakis (second from right) says criminal record checks are a ‘big stumbling block’ (Lenore Taylor Editor Guardian Australia, Sam Mostyn Chair ANROWS, Eleni Psillakis, Peer Support Coordinator – Success Works, Dress for Success, Jane Jose CEO Sydney Community Foundation image: Susan Papazian)

Psillakis says employers’ criminal record checks are a “big stumbling block” and are “automatically excluding” candidates who have come in contact with the legal system. 

“I understand why it’s there, but don’t just have a tick box where there’s no further assessment process,” she says. 

“Instead, how about asking the person the context about what happened.”

“The offence might have nothing to do with the role that you’re offering.” 

Eleni Psillakis has recently co-authored a joint USYD-Dress for Success report on discrimination in the workplace (Left: via Conscious Conversations) (Right: Screenshot)

Psillakis recently co-authored a joint University of Sydney-Dress for Success research report on discrimination against female ex-offenders in the workplace and the role of the Success Works initiative. 

“We found that the ones that disengaged from the program were ones who we having housing troubles,” she says. 

“Employment and housing are the two biggest factors for re-offending.”

On the flip-side, the report found that 46 per cent of the women who reached out to Success Works were supported into employment. 

“We also found that having women with lived experiences working on the projects – so myself and [a] peer support coordinator two days a week – was a really strong point for the women coming into the program because they felt that they weren’t judged and that they were working with someone that could relate to their experience,” she says. 

“The hardest thing to overcome every single day is to not define yourself by what has happened to you.” 

“I always say to the women that come onto the program, ‘This is something that happened. It is not you’.” 

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