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