A chance to turn lives around

CHRISTCHURCH WOMEN'S PRISON: The prison high security wing.
CHRISTCHURCH WOMEN'S PRISON: The prison high security wing.

They could be a 70-year-old grandmother, a mother whose child might join her in a Mothers with Babies Unit or a drink-driver on her third strike. For all of them their start at Christchurch Women's Prison is the same - a strip search. "Once they're in here ... they're all the same," says prison manager Tracy Tyro.

A sharp-talking senior corrections officer with 18 years in the business is the first encounter with the prison's 60 custodial staff many of the women will have. Kath Stills has been a receiving officer for nine years and says "life skills" help her deal with some of the prison's tough customers.

"It's my job to calm them down. A lot of them are angry that they are here [and] a lot come in de-toxing," she says.

The prisoners arrive in a Department of Corrections vehicle, get strip-searched - "some shake, some cry", walk through a metal detector so sensitive it will pick up a hidden hair clip, get their mug-shot taken and sit on a stool in front of Stills.

She runs through a list of questions, including what support they have "on the outside" and whether they have any future plans. The latter question is a curve-ball for those facing long prison sentences, but Stills says she has to ask it. "I get some pretty colourful answers. You get an idea of how they're feeling."

Stills' job also includes an assessment of each woman's risk of self-harming, which will influence whether they're put in high, medium, low or minimum-security environments. She warns them about the prison's electric fences and razor wire - "It's not a good idea to run away" - before sending them into the depths of the prison system.

Rachel Doocey, a nurse and health team leader, says many of the prisoners' health issues are wide-ranging when they first arrive.

"A lot of their social issues are so huge and that's what impacts on their poor health. It's a real un-layering process for them," she says. Services at the prison include forensic psychology for high-risk re-offenders and Accident Compensation Corporation-funded counselling for victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Department of Corrections psychologist Lara Aitchison says roughly 80 per cent of the women in New Zealand prisons have domestic violence backgrounds and 55 per cent have suffered sexual abuse. Sadly, Aitchison says, a lot of women "come here [thinking] that is normal".

Corrections psychologists and programmes staff run a group-course for high-risk offenders, specifically designed for female prisoners. It helps them address their thoughts, emotions and circumstances leading up to their offending.

They look at the consequences of their actions and how they might avoid high-risk situations and manage "overwhelming emotions" in the future.

Some prisoners at Christchurch Women's Prison live in minimum-security houses with flatmates or with their babies until their child turns two. Some study to further their education, whether it is a university degree or reading a children's book, or are employed, earning up to 40 cents an hour, in the prison's kitchen, sewing room, laundry or in a facilities maintenance painting gang.

Other prisoners live more restricted lives. The prison's high-security wings have strict lock-down hours. Women are placed in separate "at-risk" units when there is an immediate mental or physical risk of harm. One of the at-risk units is a concrete-floored room with no toilet or running water.

Across in Wing 1, the prison's 54-bed low security unit, the canteen is open. A prisoner appears to be hoarding shampoo. It turns out she is "off-privileges" due to bad behaviour. This means buying chips and biscuits is out of the question, but shampoo is OK. The shelves in her cell are loaded with the stuff.

Penalties can be imposed by an adjudicator on misconducts committed by prisoners against the Corrections Act 2004 while on remand or serving a sentence.

The atmosphere in the bustling hallways of Wing 1 is jovial and corrections officer Julie Stuart appears to have a good rapport with the prisoners.

"A lot of them have been here for as long as I have [worked here]," she says. Stuart is also in charge of the minimum-security section of the prison, which includes the Mothers with Babies Unit.

In one of the flats, a young woman is "spring cleaning" in the middle of winter. Her 10-month-old is out with her grandmother for the week. The woman says she was re-united with her daughter within a day of being sent to prison.

"If she had not come in I probably would have been quite broken spirit-wise," she says. "She makes me want to change."

Tyro spent eight years at Christchurch Men's Prison before taking over as manager at Christchurch Women's Prison and says the two are "completely" different.

"A lot of women are still trying to run the family and run the home from here. A lot of the women are victims themselves," she says.

"I think we have got a role in making them whole again and setting them up for a better future."

The Press