Traditionally those who embarked on the unpopular task of assisting those in prison were representatives of the charitable organisations and the Christian churches. While the charitable organisations sought to improve the physical conditions in which prisoners were held, the evangelical motivation of many Christian churches focused solely on the spiritual dimension, seeking 'gaol house' conversions.
The Prisoners' Aid Society was established in 1872 with the aim of affording 'assistance to discharged Prisoners with a view to their restoration to a virtuous and honest mode of living'. Jurists, clergy and philanthropists were supportive of the public appeal for the provision of practical assistance to released prisoners. Today, this organisation continues as the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, providing counselling, support and relevant education to offenders, ex-offenders, their families and the community.
Until recent decades much of the work of prisoners' aid was marked by a paternalism that failed to address issues of human rights or to recognise the dignity of people in need.
The second half of the 20th century saw increased awareness of the need for prison reform to accompany practical programs of assistance to prisoners. Notable among the reformers were Dame Phyllis Frost, who for many years chaired the Fairlea Women's Council, and Fr John Brosnan, whose 30 years as chaplain to Pentridge Prison is remembered in the work of the Brosnan Centre, which provides post-release support and advocacy for juvenile offenders.
Other significant contributors to prisoners' aid include the Australian Community Support Organisation, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society (through prison visitation) and the Salvation Army (through its court work). These diverse groups continue their work today in both government and privately run 'for-profit' prisons.