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A Prison Officer’s inside view

EMILY WEBB


We are always appreciative when we get listener feedback for the Australian True Crime podcast. The ATC community is amazing and we are proud that we have listeners from all walks of life, including first responders and people who work in the criminal justice system. We know that there’s an intrigue around what actually happens in Australia’s prisons and judging from the response we had to our interviews with Vaughan Ruddick, the former Pentridge Prison guard and the tours he did for us (way back in early 2019), people really want to know more.

So whenever we get contacted by a serving correctional officer, we take note.


A prison officer emailed the podcast to give us some background on what happens within the walls of a prison, from their experience, so that we can pass that on to the ATC community.


For privacy reasons (and the fact that serving correctional officers can’t speak publicly about their work) we’re calling this person Officer X.


What is it like right now, working in a prison during this COVID-19 pandemic?


It's not great. Actually, it's very hard. I think it's hard on prison officers, because depending on what area you are working in we can be in full PPE (personal protective equipment) every day, which is not comfortable. Especially when a lot of the times you're speaking to prisoners, it’s not so much in the things that you say, but it's the expression on your face that helps with a conversation, or lets them (the prisoners) know how serious you are about something. Or if someone looks like they are up to something shifty they can tell from your face if you are onto them and at the moment wearing masks, we lose a lot of that ability.


It’s also hard on the prisoners and their families, they can't see each other as there are no visitors allowed in correctional facilities. I know a lot of the public will be thinking (who cares about them) but what you need to keep in mind especially with remand prisons is these are the people who haven't gone to court yet, they're not actually proven guilty of anything. You do have some people sitting in prison that are completely innocent of the crimes that they've been accused of, and we need to be very careful how those people are treated. The families of these people didn't choose to be put in this situation, it is awful for family members who have never dealt with the corrections system before to try and work out all the things they need to do. Also some people commit crimes so they have a place to sleep, get some food and some much needed medical attention, some of these people are returned service people. We just need to treat people properly.


What is it that made you want to become a prison officer?


I think it stems from my childhood. I had a really tough upbringing, I suffered abuse within the home and always wondered what made those types of people tick. I could have gone either way. I could have got into the drugs as some do to try to forget ( which I completely understand) or I could choose to live my life, I already felt like I had lost so much so why lose more. I never wanted to be one of those do-gooders in society but I wanted to make a difference somehow. I don't want to be one of those officers that, you know, turned up, let them out for the day, treated them like animals, locked them back up and went home. I wouldn't say that that's productive for anybody. I want to be an officer that just makes a difference in the way people look at and think about the opportunities that they have. So when they get back out into society, they can see things in a different light to where they don't need to be making s*** decisions that have them end up in prison. And it's not just to make their lives better, it is to make my family and your families lives better because the crimes they commit are against us. We can't lock people up, give them no way of changing their lives and expect them to behave differently when they get out. That just doesn't make sense.


What is it that you think people don't really understand about what it's like to do the kind of work you do?


I know people say “well you chose that job you must have known what it was going to be about” but I think what some people don't appreciate is that if you were in any other job and you were called the things we are called, spat on and assaulted on a daily basis, you would be in court testifying against that person." But that's just our job". We go home at the end of the day, have a shower and we're supposed to interact with family and be able to think straight, there are times you just can't get something out of your head.


We get a call to go into a cell and someone's tried to end their own life and the cell could be completely covered in blood. Or, someone could be fitting or someone's had their head caved in by another prisoner. I think the average person doesn't realize the impact that can have on you, and in some prisons it's all day every day. You have some of the quieter locations that might have one code ( assistance call over everyone's radio) called a week then you have others that have 20-plus a day. It can be exhausting if you work in those higher demand locations.


I'm very fortunate that I've got an extremely supportive family and I can talk to them about most things but that’s not the experience for everyone. Sometimes you just can’t talk about what happens at work and you want to keep that stuff away from your loved ones. And some people’s partners don’t want to hear about it because it’s too full on.


We often think we'd be able to spot a monster if we saw one or someone who's really dangerous. Is this true, in your experience?


It is absolutely not the case. I've walked into a unit and interacted with somebody who's had the most pleasant manners and are very thankful for something that you've done for them. And then someone's told me their crime, and you just think, “s***, that could be my next door neighbour, that was someone's next door neighbour!”. A lot of people have a perception that a pedophile is like the old, wizened, priestly looking people but a pedophile can be an 18-year-old kid who looks like your friend's son. Some of the most pleasant exchanges I've had with prisoners have been those who have been convicted of some of the most gruesome crimes, they are serving a long stint and are settled so they just ride the system and don't make waves.


Don't kid yourself. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.