Beth worked as a corrections officer in high-security men’s prisons for over a decade throughout her twenties.
Beth — who asked that we change her name as she has signed non-disclosure agreements — has been out of Corrections for around 12 years and now works in developing support systems to keep people out of prisons.
We asked the Re: News audience: “What would you ask a female corrections officer in New Zealand?”
And Beth answered your questions.
Why did you start working as a corrections officer?
I had been working in a retail role as an under 20-year-old woman, and was a bit directionless. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t go to uni. I was just drifting.
But I was quite a hard worker and had some experiences in my youth that had exposed me to gang culture — mostly in a positive way — and grew up in a small community where drugs were quite rife.
And so there was an article in a newspaper that talked about needing more female prison officers — back then we were called prison officers — in male institutions to replicate what the world was really like.
It asked: how can we rehabilitate men if the only people they were locked up with were male prison officers?
I, in my young naivete, thought I could do that. That’s a good direction. It’s a really solid government job with a great pay scale.
It didn’t scare me but gave me — I guess — a bit of an adrenaline buzz to think this is something that I could really enjoy doing and make a difference.
What was your expectation of the job and how did that line up with the reality?
Corrections has people applying for prison roles spending a day in a prison before they take the job.
Which sounds a bit crazy, but it gives you an honest experience of ‘this is what it’s going to be like’. And generally these visits are spent in a unit that’s not one of the easiest places to be — the real reality check places.
From that, my expectations were that I would be a custodian — that I’m not there to make any judgements. I’m just there to actually make the day run as smoothly as possible for both the staff and the people incarcerated.
The one thing I wasn’t expecting was the support that I would get from the staff.
I liken it to trauma bonds which my husband described. My husband was in the military. There’s something about being in a military situation where you’re relying really heavily on the people that you work with — your staff, your team — to support you. You have to have their trust, and they have to have your trust.
I still think of the people I’ve worked with as family because of the heightened sense of awareness and the possibility of things kicking off — not that it happens that often.
There is a bond that you have with the people that have your back. It’s such a powerful thing.
Are you still with Corrections? If not, why did you leave?
I left about 12 years ago.
I left because I took 12 months maternity leave and then decided that going back to full time shift work wouldn’t have enough flexibility — like to pop out if the kids are sick. So, yeah, that’s why I left.
I still work in a social service role that is preventing the pathways to incarceration.
How did your work in prisons build that desire to work in rehabilitative services?
When I was a Corrections officer, I would read pre-sentence reports and hear stories from young people and older people who have just not been supported in the right way, or just made some really silly mistakes.
I could see if they had had the right person there to say, ‘we’re gonna try this rather than that’, things might have been different.
It just breaks your heart.
It seemed ludicrous to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, which is what Corrections have to be to pick up the pieces.
I now feel like a preventative measure, supporting young people to do simple things like have a legal driver’s licence is going to help prevent that.
What was the best part of the job?
There were a lot of small wins — through very ordinary chats with prisoners, you could see their thought processes shift.
Even if it was just, ‘I can trust this person and when I’m not in this place it’s okay to trust somebody to be vulnerable’.
There’s one in particular I was just thinking about.
I was having a conversation with a group of guys who were probably 25, 26 years old, and we were talking about baking. I was saying that I was going to bake some muffins, and how everybody likes a nice fresh batch of muffins.
And they had no idea what I was talking about.
And that was this moment of like, how are our worlds so far apart?
It made me think, ‘if your whole world is focused on gangs, drugs, alcohol and parties and you’ve never had a muffin before, what are the other things in that divide?’
In my current role, I can see that it’s things like KiwiSaver. We take for granted that we all know what that means but there are so many important things that these guys are never introduced to.
And that’s, to me, what made those conversations such beautiful moments. It’s like, this whole shifting in their worldview.
But it’s also heartbreaking.
Do guards ever have secret relationships with inmates?
I don’t think it happens as often as the public thinks it does.
As a young female officer, those assumptions about why I became an officer certainly were always overshadowing me.
But there are amazing, well respected, very dedicated female prison officers who completely outweigh the number who do get into trouble in that way.
In the rare cases that does happen, one thing I did think about was how it would be really, really hard to make that work and I can’t figure out how or why you would dedicate that much time to it.
Like, staff should always be operating in twos and there are cameras everywhere. In the evenings after lock down, we hand our keys back to the cells so there shouldn’t be an opportunity for that sort of thing to happen after hours.
But then, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Is smuggling a thing in New Zealand prisons?
When I was there, smuggling was getting pretty bad. Now I would imagine it would be really bad with how digitally connected everything is.
The main avenue would be visitors smuggling in things, like drugs and phones.
I guess if you’re locked up for that many hours a day for so many years, drugs and phones and things are such a problem because it’s something to do.
And they have hours and hours, days and days to figure out how to do it. They can sit up all night dreaming of new ways to smuggle something in.
Somebody probably asked about the staff smuggling things in? I never had any experience of that in the prison that I worked at, but I think there is a culture issue in some parts of the country with the staff.
One thing I will say about that, though, is that some criminals are master manipulators, and they have perfected the art of getting to the vulnerabilities of people. Some of them are there for fraud or multi-million dollar drug deals — they’re savvy business people.
When you’re a Corrections officer, working so many hours alongside these guys, you really need to hold a line as a corrections officer — like I’m not going to tell them I have a family and I have children. I’m not going to let it slip that the car broke down last week and I’ve got to buy $1000 worth of new tires.
It’s really hard to maintain that line.
You do get lots of training about that and about just being really careful about how much information you share. But how do you know how you’ll deal with it until you’re confronted with a gang member who’s saying, ‘Oh! So your car broke down? You need an extra $1000? Just do me this one little deal and I’ll make sure your bank balance is sweet’.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever found smuggled in?
Bacon – just a slab of bacon.
It got thrown over the fence and we found it on the roof.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
Yes, it is a place that is filled with very dangerous people. And you walk in there every day with a spidey sense — the hairs standing on the back of your neck — thinking anything could happen.
But my experience was that there was always someone that had my back. We were never really vulnerable. But it is a place filled with very dangerous people.
And there is a bit of a saying, ‘when you become complacent, that’s when it’s dangerous’. When you’re taking for granted that you are safe, it’s really dangerous.
And complacency is also when you see things like smuggling and relationships with prisoners.
As a female corrections officer, did you experience sexual harassment?
Some of the prisoners are amazingly respectful and quite often that is older gang members. Their respect was fricking amazing, and the respect that they expect from their underlings and the other people in the prison too.
There is a code. They are expecting that if, as a female or male officer, you’ll just be there to keep the peace. And as long as you’re doing that, and not making life harder, then the respect level is amazing.
It’s now these younger, more rogue guys who are much more disrespectful. Things like sexual harassment would be more of an issue with them.
But the reason I became a prison officer was so that I could influence that behaviour and say, ‘I’m just a normal female who’s not expecting anything from you apart from this level of relationship’.
The best thing I can compare it to is a student-teacher relationship. Where I’m going to be nice to you and not judging you. If you’re nice back to me, then we can get through the day and talk about things like what does your dream car look like? And how might you achieve buying that one day legitimately, and in a really honest, vulnerable way. And without flying off the handle.
I made it clear that I wasn’t trying to get anything out of them. I’m just a normal woman, and this is a normal relationship. There’s nothing sexual going on.
So when they would say things that were inappropriate, they’re faced with me who goes, ‘you know, I don’t really like that. I’d rather that we just talked about baking muffins’.
Having worked in prisons, what are your thoughts on the prison abolition movement?
I think that would be amazing.
I do think there’s always going to be a place like prison for certain crimes though. Some people shouldn’t be part of general society. There needs to still be a place for some situations, like pedophilia or terrorism.
But yes, 100%. I think there could be a future largely without prisons.
There are lots and lots of offences that could be dealt with without them being in prison even now. You know, like cannabis would have been such an easy one. We are putting offenders who got caught with cannabis into an institution with really heavy duty crime offenders. And I don’t think that’s a good idea.
My desire within my role now is to prevent crimes and imprisonment, and to throw lots of resources at stable families, fixing educational outcomes, and growing capability for growing life skills, reduction in alcohol and drug use. Though, that list of needs is endless.
Do you feel bad having upheld an inherently classist and racist system?
No, I don’t.
I think all institutions — like the education and hospital system — are all racist and colonised/have a colonised mentality.
We need people within those institutions to enact change. And even if that change is just with the one or two people that you interact with, knowing that there is something different. Otherwise, you’re just trying to fix something from the outside.
Honestly, I want those systems to have more people like me — somebody who is coming from a positive place, respectful and supportive, because the alternative is a whole bunch of corrections officers who are in it for the churn of racist authority.