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Coping with life behind bars

Last updated 05:00 24/07/2014

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The librarian at the Wiri women's prison has perfectly coiffed hair and bright red lipstick.

She runs a tight ship, she tells me, with set tasks and time limits and boxes to check. She prides herself on the range of books she has to lend - health, education, art. There are just two exceptions: "We don't have horoscopes and we don't have porn".

This prisoner is serving a long, long sentence. She's had time to get the library running to a seamless schedule, one another prisoner could eventually slot into and take over. "So if I move on to other, greener pastures . . ."

That's when Daisy Tanuvasa interrupts. "Which you definitely will," she says with a smile.

Tanuvasa is 43 and lives in Clendon. She's been an officer at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility since it opened in 2006.

Originally from Samoa, she took a job with the corrections department so she could get permanent residency in New Zealand. Soon, though, it became a career - she's now a principal corrections officer and heads up a team.

"I love working with people and I know I can make a difference," she says.

The prison is shaped like a stingray, with a kitchen, laundry and marae sitting on the spine. High-security prisoners live on one side, in cells, where they're monitored and escorted everywhere they go. There are pamphlets in display cases on what to do in case of a riot or aircraft-assisted escape.

But on the low-security side, where Tanuvasa works, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Women wear paint-splattered overalls or cooking aprons. A young woman with visible tattoos pushes an infant in a pram.

Tanuvasa manages the self-care and mothers and babies units, which house up to 40 women at any one time. The units are usually the last stop for inmates before they're released and are set up like flats, with communal living rooms, kitchens and play areas.

Prisoners are taken to a nearby supermarket twice a week to do their own food shopping. Some work outside the high fences in the site cafe or in the garden.

It's not like the prisons you see on TV shows. It's huge, for one: Almost 50ha, housing between 350 and 400 inmates all up. On an earlier visit I'd expressed my surprise at how pleasant the place seemed.

"Yes, it is," a corrections official had told me, "but that's because you get to leave."

Tanuvasa and her colleagues focus on preparing the prisoners for a life outside the gates.

Each inmate has a job: Sorting and packing groceries at the prison's distribution centre, screenprinting T-shirts, training dogs to assist people with disabilities. They take part in tikanga Maori classes and learn how to balance a budget.

Tanuvasa doesn't talk much about the crimes the women committed to land them here. She tries not to focus on it, she says.

"We have to make sure that we separate our personal opinions from our jobs because otherwise our jobs will be harder.

"I can't go, ‘I'm not going to give her a phone call because she's a murderer'. We have to treat everyone the same."

Her faith helps her out in that area - she's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Last Christmas she organised a nativity show for the prisoners and taught them song and dance routines.

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"It's a good lesson because they have to reflect on what happened at the time," she says.

"Jesus came from a very low life. It taught him to be humble."

After the show Tanuvasa walked around the whole site and wished each inmate a merry Christmas. She was late home, she says, and didn't have time to do her grocery shopping.

"But even though we didn't have much to eat on Christmas Day I felt good because I knew I'd made a difference."

She cried after the show - a rare occurrence. She doesn't let herself get attached to the prisoners and once they leave, she doesn't want to see them come back.

The corrections department's goal is to reduce re-offending by 25 per cent by 2017. The women that re-offend "just break my heart", she says.

What she does like is seeing them out in the community, reconnecting with their families and getting new jobs. She'll often see former prisoners at the supermarket or when she's out with her husband and son.

She always knows they're coping well with life on the outside when they come running up to her.

"Miss Daisy," they'll say, "Guess what I'm doing!"

- Manukau Courier

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