A home for prisoners in the modern era

NICCI MCDOUGALL
Last updated 07:57 18/12/2013
Prison
NICCI McDOUGALL/Fairfax NZ

Inside a high-security wing at Otago Corrections Facility.

Jack Harrison
NICCI McDOUGALL
Otago Corrections Facility prison manager Jack Harrison.

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I have watched prison movies such as Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile but as I pull into the car park of the Otago Corrections Facility I have no idea what to expect.

I have never been to prison, until now.

I arrive at the prison, near Milton, and go through security which includes a bag X-ray and walk-through metal detector.

Manager Jack Harrison, who is responsible for the prisoners, welcomes me to the complex which has 285 high security beds and 200 low medium to medium security beds.

Almost 270 staff work at the prison, which is currently home to 399 prisoners, and it is designed a little differently from the other, more traditional prisons, he says.

"It doesn't have the look and feel of a normal prison."

It sure does not. Well, not compared to the prisons in the movies anyway.

The prison is surrounded by a 5.2 metre high concrete fence with another 1.5m of electric wire on top. Mr Harrison says there has not been one escape attempt since the prison opened in mid 2007.

"Public safety is the key priority."

I am taken to the receiving office where staff process thousands of prisoners each year - a process that can take up to four hours for each person.

The prisoner waits in a receiving cell before being taken to one of the four search cells. As part of the processing the prisoner meets with a nurse who assesses his immediate medical and psychological needs, and gets his fingerprints and his photo taken.

All prisoners are strip-searched on reception and if officers believe the prisoner is carrying any item internally he is placed in a dry cell fitted with a camera on 15-minute observations. If a corrections officer believes the prisoner has secreted contraband internally the paperwork is compiled to get him to a medical provider for an X-ray.

We leave the receiving office and walk down the footpath, where we see some prisoners working in the garden. Four corrections officers stand on the sidelines, arms folded, watching prisoners, clad in grey, playing touch on a basketball court.

With a corrections officer, Mr Harrison and another woman by my side, Mr Harrison tells me we are going to visit the high-security wing.

My heart jumps and I feel nervous but curiosity wins out and I am keen to have a peek inside.

Prisoners stop and stare as we walk towards the wing.

Feeling like a goldfish in a glass bowl, we wait for the door to open - a process that happens at every door within the prison grounds - while prisoners gather and watch us through the large windows.

The odd comment is made but I pretend not to hear as we walk inside.

Inside the high security wing prisoners walk around, sit at tables, play table tennis and chat.

The walls are lined with cells and two metal staircases lead to even more cells.

I take a step inside one of the small high-security cells. The cells are single or double bunked and contain a toilet, a small hand basin, a shower and personal items such as a television and toiletries.

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The cell's large metal doors include a small window and a flap.

After visiting the high-security wing I am taken to the programmes unit where I speak with a prisoner and hear about programmes run at the prison, some of which include the medium-intensity rehabilitation programme, a "work ready"programme and vocational training including driver's licences and first aid.

REHAB PROGRAMME PLANTS SEEDS OF NEW LIFE

"It's not worth it. You miss out on so much when you come in here. I missed the most important parts of my life."

This from high security prisoner John, 21, at Otago Corrections Facility, who is serving a four-year prison sentence.

In a brightly lit classroom John, clad in his grey prison uniform, speaks about life on the inside and his new outlook on life.

John, who does not say what he is inside for, talks about growing up around gangs and negative influences. But he says he has since changed his attitude to life after completing the corrections medium intensity rehabilitation programme in prison.

John's family encouraged him to stay away from trouble but, as he grew up, he met a couple of people and took a "wrong turn", he says. He has realised those people were not his friends. Since he has been inside they have forgotten about him. But the people who care, his family, have not. They are the people he should have listened to, he says.

"It's a clearer picture for me now. They never gave up on me. I walked out on them but when I fell down they were there."

John's life in prison can be boring, and he spends a lot of his time drawing, writing letters and playing board games. But he misses his family every day and struggles when speaking to them because they have had not dealt well with his incarceration.

"They're the ones sitting there waiting and that's hard."

If he could go back in time he would tell himself it is not worth it. He has missed out on the most important parts of his life, including the birth of his son, he says.

John says the medium-intensity rehabilitation programme, which takes three months to complete, identifies individual needs, core beliefs, high-risk situations and ways to stop getting into high-risk situations.

"I think it has helped me. I know how to prevent myself from getting into situations that get me in trouble. I now weigh up the consequences. I used to just go in and do it. Even good things, I think about it now."

It has changed his outlook, the way he does things, and the way he thinks, he says.

At the programme's graduation, John was told people were proud of him - something, he says, he had never heard anyone tell him before.

He has been learning about Maori culture and undertaking the living skills programme, and when he is released he intends to be a good dad, get a secure job and provide for his family.

"Now it's about teaching my son not to go the way I did, and do positive things." Medium intensity rehabilitation programme facilitator Gill Brown says the programme, which most participants complete, makes a real difference to people's lives.

She recalls one young man who, at the end of the programme, was a changed man. At the graduation his mother cried and thanked Ms Brown for "giving my son's sparkle back".

"I will hold that with me forever," she says.

In the four years since the man's release, he has not reoffended, she says.

The programme targets a wide range of rehabilitation needs, including changing attitudes that support offending, examining feelings, substance abuse, criminal associates, violence, poor self- control and relationship difficulties. "We don't want people to reoffend. We want people never to come back."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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