Humour helps in this special job

Corrections officer Paul Rodgers is ready for work.
Corrections officer Paul Rodgers is ready for work.

Being a Corrections officer is a job many people would avoid, yet officers seem to love it. Nicci McDougall discovers why.

COST OF A CRIMINAL: Department of Corrections figures show in the 2012-13 financial year it cost $124.23 a day to house a prisoner in the Invercargill Prison and $119.03 the year before. Costs include staff costs (such as salaries, travel and training) and offender costs such as meals, bedding, clothing, general supplies, programmes and services.

Paul Rodgers doesn't have what you'd call a conventional job and with it comes some unconventional accessories.

He carries a radio, can wear a stab proof vest if he wants, and has access to pepper spray and handcuffs. Yet despite the obvious dangerous nature of his job, most of the time he carries a set of keys and gets by with a sense of humour.

He reckons a joke and a smile can go a long way to getting something done rather than relying on a frown and angry words.

"It's a balancing act some days."

Rodgers is one of about 75 Corrections officers who monitor up to 172 prisoners every day at the Invercargill Prison.

Not surprisingly, he's often asked what it takes to be a prison guard; to work inside the wire next to criminals, some of whom have committed heinous crimes.

He says it's about a smile, a joke, being a people person, fair and firm, with good listening and communication skills.

Rodgers starts his day with a "glass half full" attitude and a smile because it rubs off on people.

And, he loves his job.

And it becomes clear during almost eight hours at the prison, that every Corrections officer echoes this sentiment.

They come from all walks of life. They might have once been plumbers, builders or vehicle inspectors but they now treat each other as members of an extended family.

Several have spent more than 20 years working in the prison.

They're attracted by the staff camaraderie, the challenge and the humour - sometimes black - that comes with a job in such an intense environment. A career in Corrections attracts people who want to make a difference in their community and the lives of individuals. They agree the job makes them appreciate what they have.

Rodgers, a former VTNZ vehicle inspector who changed roles seven years ago, says everyone gets along and keep an eye out for their colleagues.

"We give each other a lot of jib but when the chips are down we look after each other."

It's the same as any workplace except they're dealing with convicted criminals, he says.

He and his workmates laugh with each other - maybe something other staff have done like a funny haircut, backed the wrong rugby team, a bad golf score or the classic car stoush, Holden v Ford.

"My sense of humour gets me through a lot . . . I try to look at the positive in everything.

"If you treat people how you wish to be treated it is generally returned . . . try not to be judgmental, which to be honest some days is very hard to do."

Throughout his day, Rodgers will make his way around the North, South, Centre and Remand units of the urban Invercargill prison. He's got a portable radio strapped to his belt (the ear piece and microphone attached to his shoulder) and a bright red button - a personal duress alarm which, touch wood, he hasn't needed to use yet.

He whistles quietly to himself as he walks through the antiquated lockup, past dozens of large, locked steel doors, behind which male prisoners, young and old, pass their time.

Some are there for a few days, others are serving a life sentence.

Eyes peek through the small cell door peepholes but no-one says a word.

Rodgers isn't there to punish or fix them but to make sure they get their entitlements. That's his job, he says.

"I'm not here to fix them. I'm here to make sure they get a fair deal . . . I'll take a bit of banter from them but they know my expectation of them in terms of behaviour.

"I just treat them as human but always remembering they're here for a reason."

If you build a rapport with prisoners they might discuss their problems which could help them deal with those issues and make changes in their lives, he says.

Throughout the day Rodgers recalls several "work stories". One of them involved an inmate drawing on a cell wall but declaring it wasn't him. He had ink on his fingers and had dated it and written his name but still firmly denied it was him.

Within the century-old prison there's a gym, a medical unit and a chapel hidden among the 4.6-hectare site nestled behind a tall concrete fence topped with pitiless razor wire.

What goes on behind the wire is not widely known, but it is not unlike what you would expect - the prisoners are there for a reason.

An officer works an eight hour shift rostered around a 24-hour day.

Most prisoners are unlocked at 7am or 8am and during the day they go to work or spend time doing programmes and exercising. They're locked up for the night; usually at 7pm for sentenced prisoners and 5pm for remands.

A Corrections officer's day can include cell searches, face-to- name musters, transportation of prisoners to and from court, moving people around the jail and responsibility for a unit.

The urban prison, diagonally opposite McDonalds Restaurant, was opened in 1910 and holds up to 172 low-to-medium security male prisoners.

The prison is getting a facelift, which started last month.

The $17.9 million refit will include a new boiler, west and north unit refurbishment, a new health unit, a programmes room, two workshops and audio visual link for the courts.

The upgrade to improve safety and security at the prison and provide better rehabilitation and training facilities for prisoners is part of an $87m upgrade of five prisons across the country.

Prison manager Stuart Davie is looking forward to the revamp. He's been working at the prison, initially as a corrections officer, for 33 years and says he couldn't think of a job he'd enjoy more.

Each day brings new challenges and there's always something different but at the end of the day it's all about creating safer communities through helping offenders to have the skills to make positive changes in their lives.

It's certainly a career you either love or hate, he says.

"Prison staff work in potentially stressful environments with some of society's most difficult and challenging people," Davie says.

It was about having a passion for people and wanting to make a difference for individuals and the community.

Every day Corrections officers carry out a face-to-name muster - checking prisoners faces against photos - and search each cell sometimes twice a day.

The dull grey-ish cells hold either single or double bunk beds, a stainless steel toilet, a small barred window and a shelf with a small TV.

At 10am on this Wednesday two Corrections officers, wearing blue disposable gloves, search a cell from top to bottom checking under mattresses and even in the toilet.

"We're always looking to see if there's something that shouldn't be there," one says.

The same rule applies to any items dropped off for a prisoner.

On the same morning in the reception area, a woman strolls in to drop off a pair of brand new shoes complete with tags from a store for a prisoner. The shoes are X-rayed, the same as anything that comes in, and the insoles are ripped up to make sure no contraband is hiding underneath.

Sure enough, about 18 glad- wrapped bags of what looks like tobacco sit underneath the soles, carefully wedged into the small squares in the bottom. An incident report is filed and the shoes are placed in an evidence safe.

This isn't common but does happen, one of the officers says.

In the receiving office, the first and last stop for prisoners, every item that comes in is searched and every prisoner is strip searched. The prisoner is locked in a holding cell (or dry cell) and the strip search is completed - even underneath a wrist watch.

The same process is completed when they leave.

They're given their prison uniform - tracks pants, T-shirts and a track top, socks and shoes (remand in blue, sentenced inmates in maroon).

The prisoners sign in their property, undertake an at-risk assessment if they are new, and inducted before they're allowed to make a phone call.

In an upstairs kitchen principal instructor for offender employment (and chef by trade) Gary Vilder helps the 12 employed prisoners in the kitchen prepare dinner.

He explains the menu: a continental breakfast six days a week and porridge on Saturday; three sandwiches and a piece of fruit for lunch; and dinner can alternate between different mains including beef, sausages and meat pieces and two slices of bread.

It costs between $5-6 dollars a day per prisoner, he says.

Vilder has been working in the prison kitchen for 18 1/2 years and says working in the kitchen was the "perk job" of the jail for prisoners.

They get out of their cells and it breaks up their day, he says.

He's even seen some talented chefs in the kitchen, he says.

A Corrections officer's job is not for the faint hearted or the thin-skinned. It's a job that requires complete concentration, honesty, respect, empathy, fairness and, according to Rodgers, a smile.

"While we manage some pretty challenging people and situations the majority of people in prisons are just wanting to serve their sentence, make the most of the rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities, get out of prison, change their lives and not come back." 


The Southland Times