In­side the wire: women mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in our pris­ons

Be­ing sent to prison is a pun­ish­ment, but thanks to the work of ded­i­cated Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and com­mu­nity vol­un­teers, in­car­cer­a­tion is also an op­por­tu­nity for many in­mates to trans­form their life. Suzanne McFad­den looks at the fe­male force be­hind that


It is in­side the tow­er­ing fences and jagged razor wire en­cir­cling New Zealand’s largest men’s prison that Viv Whe­lan says she is truly at home. A small, softly-spo­ken woman, her blonde hair streaked with pink, Viv is 55 and a grand­mother. For a long time, she was a Kar­i­tane and Plun­ket nurse, who weighed ba­bies and ran play­groups.

Now she cares for some of the tough­est crim­i­nals in the coun­try in her role as deputy prison man­ager of both Rimu­taka, home to 1000 male of­fend­ers, and Aro­hata, with 88 women pris­on­ers. This is her 15th year work­ing for the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment, which man­ages the 10,000 peo­ple in New Zealand’s pris­ons and 30,000 of­fend­ers in our com­mu­ni­ties. Some would prob­a­bly call it a life sen­tence.

But Viv is far from the hard­ened face we might en­vis­age at the fore­front of our ma­ligned pe­nal sys­tem. She speaks with emo­tion about the job she loves, about how it gets un­der her skin; and about her pas­sion for the “peo­ple in her care”.

“These men are not dif­fer­ent to our chil­dren,” she says from in­side Rimu­taka in Up­per Hutt. “They need bound­aries, rules and reg­u­la­tions. But they also need a voice, they need to feel loved and to

know some­one cares about them.”

Our prison pop­u­la­tion has just hit a record 10,000 – the im­pact of longer sen­tences, less pa­role re­leases and fewer peo­ple re­ceiv­ing bail. But there is still recog­ni­tion that the coun­try has to stem the flow of peo­ple not just en­ter­ing jail, but re­turn­ing time af­ter time.

The govern­ment has ad­mit­ted its five-year goal of re­duc­ing re­of­fend­ing by 25 per cent by 2017 is un­likely to be reached, although it says the num­ber of for­mer in­mates re­peat­ing crimes has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly.

So for fur­ther change to come, who will step for­ward? Right at the front are women: those within Cor­rec­tions, and those on the out­side, who are vol­un­teer­ing to help make a lifechang­ing trans­for­ma­tion in the frac­tured world of our pris­on­ers.

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