Cop­ing with life be­hind bars

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS - By ANNA LOREN

The li­brar­ian at the Wiri women’s prison has per­fectly coiffed hair and bright red lip­stick.

She runs a tight ship, she tells me, with set tasks and time lim­its and boxes to check. She prides her­self on the range of books she has to lend – health, ed­u­ca­tion, art. There are just two ex­cep­tions: ‘‘ We don’t have horo­scopes and we don’t have porn’’.

This pris­oner is serv­ing a long, long sen­tence. She’s had time to get the library run­ning to a seamless sched­ule, one an­other pris­oner could even­tu­ally slot into and take over. ‘‘So if I move on to other, greener pas­tures . . .’’

That’s when Daisy Tanu­vasa in­ter­rupts. ‘‘Which you def­i­nitely will,’’ she says with a smile.

Tanu­vasa is 43 and lives in Clen­don. She’s been an of­fi­cer at the Auck­land Re­gion Women’s Cor­rec­tions Fa­cil­ity since it opened in 2006.

Orig­i­nally from Samoa, she took a job with the cor­rec­tions de­part­ment so she could get per­ma­nent res­i­dency in New Zealand. Soon, though, it be­came a ca­reer – she’s now a prin­ci­pal cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer and heads up a team.

‘‘I love work­ing with peo­ple and I know I can make a dif­fer­ence,’’ she says.

The prison is shaped like a stingray, with a kitchen, laun­dry and marae sit­ting on the spine. High­se­cu­rity pris­on­ers live on one side, in cells, where they’re mon­i­tored and es­corted ev­ery­where they go. There are pam­phlets in dis­play cases on what to do in case of a riot or air­craft-as­sisted es­cape.

But on the low-se­cu­rity side, where Tanu­vasa works, the at­mos­phere is more re­laxed. Women wear paint-splat­tered over­alls or cook­ing aprons. A young woman with vis­i­ble tat­toos pushes an in­fant in a pram.

Tanu­vasa man­ages the self-care and moth­ers and ba­bies units, which house up to 40 women at any one time. The units are usu­ally the last stop for in­mates before they’re re­leased and are set up like flats, with com­mu­nal liv­ing rooms, kitchens and play ar­eas.

Pris­on­ers are taken to a nearby su­per­mar­ket twice a week to do their own food shop­ping. Some work out­side the high fences in the site cafe or in the gar­den.

It’s not like the prisons you see on TV shows. It’s huge, for one: Al­most 50ha, hous­ing be­tween 350 and 400 in­mates all up. On an ear­lier visit I’d ex­pressed my sur­prise at how pleas­ant the place seemed.

‘‘Yes, it is,’’ a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cial had told me, ‘‘but that’s be­cause you get to leave.’’

Tanu­vasa and her col­leagues fo­cus on pre­par­ing the pris­on­ers for a life out­side the gates.

Each in­mate has a job: Sort­ing and pack­ing gro­ceries at the prison’s dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre, screen­print­ing T-shirts, train­ing dogs to as­sist peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. They take part in tikanga

Maori classes and learn how to bal­ance a bud­get.

Tanu­vasa doesn’t talk much about the crimes the women com­mit­ted to land them here. She tries not to fo­cus on it, she says.

‘‘We have to make sure that we sep­a­rate our per­sonal opin­ions from our jobs be­cause oth­er­wise our jobs will be harder.

‘‘I can’t go, ‘ I’m not go­ing to give her a phone call be­cause she’s a mur­derer’. We have to treat every­one the same.’’

Her faith helps her out in that area – she’s a mem­ber of the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­terDay Saints. Last Christmas she or­gan­ised a na­tiv­ity show for the pris­on­ers and taught them song and dance rou­tines.

‘‘It’s a good les­son be­cause they have to re­flect on what hap­pened at the time,’’ she says.

‘‘Je­sus came from a very low life. It taught him to be hum­ble.’’

Af­ter the show Tanu­vasa walked around the whole site and wished each in­mate a merry Christmas. She was late home, she says, and didn’t have time to do her gro­cery shop­ping.

‘‘But even though we didn’t have much to eat on Christmas Day I felt good be­cause I knew I’d made a dif­fer­ence.’’

She cried af­ter the show – a rare oc­cur­rence. She doesn’t let her­self get at­tached to the pris­on­ers and once they leave, she doesn’t want to see them come back.

The cor­rec­tions de­part­ment’s goal is to re­duce re-of­fend­ing by 25 per cent by 2017. The women that re-of­fend ‘‘just break my heart’’, she says. What she does like is see­ing them out in the com­mu­nity, re­con­nect­ing with their fam­i­lies and get­ting new jobs. She’ll of­ten see for­mer pris­on­ers at the su­per­mar­ket or when she’s out with her hus­band and son.

She al­ways knows they’re cop­ing well with life on the out­side when they come run­ning up to her.

‘‘Miss Daisy,’’ they’ll say, ‘‘Guess what I’m do­ing!’’

Open spa­ces: The Auck­land Re­gion Women’s Cor­rec­tions Fa­cil­ity sits on a 47ha site and houses both high and low-se­cu­rity in­mates, in­clud­ing re­mand pris­on­ers. About 6 per cent of all pris­on­ers in New Zealand are women.

On guard : Daisy Tanu­vasa checks for con­tra­band.

Artis­tic ex­pres­sion: Daisy Tanu­vasa and screen­print­ing tu­tor Jean Clark­son look at T-shirt de­signs pro­duced by the in­mates.

Puppy par­ent­ing: A hand­ful of in­mates train labradors through the Pup­pies in Prison pro­gramme, which teaches dogs to as­sist peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

Growing room: Ba­bies are per­mit­ted to stay with their moth­ers in prison un­til they reach 2 years of age. Moth­ers must pass strin­gent be­hav­iour checks and not have com­mit­ted an of­fence against a child to be el­i­gi­ble.

Foot traf­fic: In­com­ing pris­on­ers are strip searched in these cells before be­ing pro­cessed. The busy pro­cess­ing hub is re­ferred to as the ‘‘brain’’ of the prison – there are 370 res­i­dents when I ar­rive and 371 when I leave a few hours later.

Busy hands: Daisy Tanu­vasa and light man­u­fac­tur­ing tu­tor Treleuw Cloete ad­just an in­mate’s work. Pris­on­ers are trained for man­u­fac­tur­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion and labour­ing jobs.

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