Viv Whe­lan

As a Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer, Viv has a front­line po­si­tion to im­ple­ment change.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - REHABILITATION -

At 40, Viv Whe­lan had a “mid-life cri­sis”. Af­ter work­ing as a Plun­ket nurse and rais­ing her own two chil­dren, she wanted a new ca­reer; one where she could still make a dif­fer­ence to peo­ple’s lives. “I rang both Cor­rec­tions and the Po­lice and within three weeks I was work­ing at Wan­ganui Prison.

“What mo­ti­vates me is a pas­sion for peo­ple. I’ve worked in prison, in pro­ba­tion, at the Cor­rec­tions na­tional of­fice, and fi­nally I’ve come full cir­cle. I’m back in­side. I’m home.”

In her lat­est role, as sec­ond-in-charge of Welling­ton’s two pris­ons, she mea­sures her suc­cess in small ways. “It’s all about the peo­ple in my care – when the door shuts be­hind them and they are safe, or when my staff go home safe, that’s a suc­cess­ful day,” she says.

“Prison isn’t about de­pri­va­tion and de­spair. Peo­ple get the idea that it’s a place of vi­o­lence, and yes, we have some vi­o­lence and tough days. But there is so much hope here, so much en­thu­si­asm from our staff to make things best for the peo­ple in their care.”

Viv doesn’t gloss over the re­al­i­ties of a job in a prison, es­pe­cially for a woman. She read­ily con­fesses there have been times when she has felt afraid or threat­ened, es­pe­cially start­ing out as a Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer in 2002.

“But in Wan­ganui, I was trained well by long-serv­ing prison of­fi­cers. There are times when you have to go away and have a melt­down, away from the guys,” she says.

Rimu­taka has had its share of very public trou­bles in re­cent years – with con­tra­band smug­gling, bru­tal as­saults and pris­oner es­capes. Prob­lems that are spread across the prison sys­tem. Viv sees it as her job to con­front is­sues with trans­parency and in­tegrity.

“It’s where my ma­ter­nal back­ground comes in. They get a strop up, get put in their places, but in­tegrity is crit­i­cal to me. Do­ing the right thing at the right time, all the time, is im­por­tant,” she says. “I think we’re get­ting there.”

Viv has 450 Cor­rec­tions staff un­der her wing, ros­tered be­tween Aro­hata (in Tawa) and Rimu­taka. She ad­mits both pris­ons need more staff, some­thing that’s re­flected in the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment’s lat­est drive for 600 new re­cruits to keep up with the grow­ing pris­oner muster.

It’s not an easy sell, but there has been a con­certed ef­fort to de­mys­tify the Cor­rec­tions roles. “When I started, you would never dream of talk­ing about your job. But it’s changed a lot. Prison guards are now called Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers,” Viv ex­plains.

“It re­ally is a pro­fes­sion, with a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s a life, and it gets un­der your skin.”

A good Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer needs life skills, good com­mu­ni­ca­tion and re­silience, Viv says. “They need to be them­selves. It can be a scary place, but they shouldn’t try to be some­one they think they should be. We don’t want peo­ple in here who will judge the pris­on­ers ei­ther,” she says.

She be­lieves it’s crit­i­cal hav­ing women in roles of author­ity in our pris­ons; 103 of her staff are fe­male.

“As women, we pro­vide a di­ver­sity and gen­der bal­ance. The male staff ap­pre­ci­ate it. And it’s re­ally crit­i­cal to have women work­ing in a men’s prison too, when a lot of our male pris­on­ers have been vi­o­lent to­wards women, have no re­spect for women and are not used to women in author­ity,” she says.

“In a women’s prison, you also need a bal­ance of staff. While the pris­on­ers need male role models, when it comes to per­sonal things, women like to talk to other women.”

MP Ju­dith Collins, who was Cor­rec­tions Min­is­ter un­til the re­cent Cabi­net reshuf­fle un­der new Prime Min­is­ter Bill English, agreed that it is “in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant” for pris­on­ers to see women in po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“It builds re­spect,” she said.

Cor­rec­tions has 8200 staff and in the front­line of Cor­rec­tions and pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers, 45 per cent are women. The Min­is­ter said get­ting the right bal­ance of male and fe­male of­fi­cers means a bet­ter run, hap­pier prison. “There’s of­ten a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship be­tween male pris­on­ers and women Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers be­cause there is not that ag­gro. It can bring down ten­sions by hav­ing a dif­fer­ent voice. It brings about bet­ter de­ci­sion-mak­ing and a bet­ter vibe.”

There is so much hope here, so much en­thu­si­asm.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.