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.