TAFE Saved My Life


21 June 2019

There are many pathways to university study, but Sue Leech’s story is different to most -she started her academic life behind bars.

‘Going into prison you feel like your life is over.’ Leech told this year’s AEU Federal Conference. ‘You feel like you have no future and there is nothing you can do to change course.’

Locked up on remand for eleven and a half months waiting for her case to go through the courts, she began her studies in the prison education programme which is designed to improve education opportunities on release. With a background in corporate administration she started helping the other women in the prison with basic computing and business studies skills. It was there that a lecturer from TAFE SA’s Port Adelaide campus encouraged her to consider studying some of the women’s studies courses – all of which are TAFE accredited and include an industry recognised certificate.

TAFE SA offers a Certificate II in Vocational Preparation for women and Certificates III and IV in Women’s advocacy. They are designed to give women the skills, self-confidence and knowledge required to deal with career, education and life changes. The courses offer an opportunity for women to train and re-train by commencing with access courses that develop confidence and foundation skills. The courses develop literacy and numeracy, computing, self-development and work-related competencies and have a strong track record for effective outcomes with many students going on to tertiary education and career success. Nothing illustrates the success of this program more than Leech’s story.

‘I found a purpose. With the lecturers’ support my attitude towards myself changed’ Sue told delegates. ‘I decided not be just another statistic, just another offender, a number in a book. I wanted to change.’

In prison, Leech only had two and a half hours every Tuesday for lectures, but by the time she was released she had completed three courses and had an appetite for more study. However, she had concerns about being overwhelmed by college life and study, and above all, the way other students might react if she turned up at the local Port Adelaide campus and announced she had just got out of prison.

Again she credits the personal support and encouragement of her TAFE teachers to getting her through the first few months and beyond. Leech was still on home detention having only been released two weeks earlier, when she started her first subject ‘Women and the Law’. As the teachers went around the classroom gauging the experience of the students, Leech realised she was confident enough to tell her story. She recounted that there was no judgement in the classroom from teachers or students. ‘Everyone was there for the same purpose: to learn from each other, gain confidence, learn new skills and better themselves.’

As her confidence and skills grew, she felt that she had a future and saw an opportunity to break the cycle of re-offending. She completed her certificate II and graduated in October last year. While completing her certificate III she enrolled in a tertiary enabling program through Charles Darwin University online to prepare her for university. As the TAFE Teacher goes to print, Sue will be starting her Bachelor of IT.

‘I couldn’t have got this far on my own. There was so much support from TAFE Lecturers and students, but particularly lecturers who were there for me, they sat down and talked to me and supported me. I would honestly say that TAFE saved my life.’

Despite success stories such as Sue’s, Port Adelaide campus was one of the seven TAFE’s recently closed down as part of the Liberal Government’s efforts to further their privatisation agenda. ‘Cutting TAFE is ridiculous. There is no TAFE in the Port Adelaide area now. People are told to travel into the city, but when I got out of prison, Port Adelaide was a safe place for me. It would have been too daunting for me to travel and be surrounded by so many people.’ she said.

Leech explained that a key reason that women re-offend is the lack of support that is available to them when they leave prison. She feels strongly that it was only through the opportunity to study in Port Adelaide and the support, mentoring and push she received from TAFE SA that she was able to break that cycle.

Leech wants to see all women find support and improve their own prospects. Her goal is to complete her IT degree and specialise in mobile application development. She aims to leverage her lived experience to develop applications that can be used in prisons to empower women when they are released and make the adjustment to life on the outside easier.

‘TAFE allowed me to know that I could do something with my life. I know the way to do it is to start inside so that the support is there to get through those first few weeks.I’m hoping what I do will allow women to do that.’

By sharing her experiences so honestly, Leech hoped people would realise that prisoners aren’t bad people and that TAFE can play a vital role in rebuilding lives.

‘It is rare that anyone who has gone to prison has done something really bad. It’s just bad choices that they made in stages of their life. They need to have a future. They need to have a chance. Without TAFE, without the public education system, we would not have that chance and I would not be where I am today – knowing that I have a future’.

This article originall appeared in The Australian TAFE Teacher Autumn 2019.