Ellie Williams, a manager at Christchurch Men’s Prison, retires early next month after 31 years of service working in Canterbury prisons.
She started in January 1986 as a prison officer at Christchurch Women’s Prison and has worked with hundreds, even thousands, of people on prison sentences over her career to try and ensure they do not return to prison.
“I had a friend who was a prison officer and after asking a lot of questions I thought I might be able to make a go of a job with Corrections,” she explains.
“I thought it would be interesting working with people who might be able to be changed in some way for the better, and I liked the idea of working within a close knit team.”
She has seen many changes to the prison service over her career and says Corrections met her expectations “and then some.” She is now a Custodial Systems Manager.
“The way we work in prisons today has its focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending as a priority. There are so many programmes and incentives in place now to help offenders make positive changes and provide skills to prisoners to assist them to remain offence free when they are released.
“Additionally, we are delivering planning well ahead of release for high risk prisoners with input from several agencies to help smooth their transition back to the community. This goes a long way towards making the community a safer place as well as wrapping more support around the released prisoner.”
When she started, women were not allowed to work in men’s prisons so there was no choice about where she could be employed. But in 1992, after coming back from maternity leave, it was accepted that women could work in men’s prisons and many women already were.
“I found it challenging and interesting and a full-on learning curve. I loved the job right from the start,” she says.
“Initially I was a bit nervous about how I would feel about working with prisoners but it didn’t take long to realise that they are just people, albeit with different mind sets and ways of behaving.
“The camaraderie amongst staff was something I had not encountered to that degree in other jobs before. We were, and are, a tight team who look out for each other.
“Things were incredibly different in prisons when I began my career,” she says.
“Probably because of the possible personal risk to staff from some of the prisoners we work with. We were governed by the old Penal Institutions Act 1954 and Penal Institution Regulations 1961. They were simple rules and prisoner rights were much more limited.”
“Working in a prison is very satisfying and also very heart-breaking,” says Ellie. “We have our successes though, and in many cases Corrections staff can be the few people who care about the person’s future, within the prison, and after prison.”
Terrance* was one such man. Ellie recalls that when he came into prison he communicated in a threatening and aggressive way through 'gritted teeth'.
“Well that’s not quite right actually because when he was received he didn’t have any teeth,” she says.
He had been in an altercation where someone had taken to him with a baseball bat and he had lost many of his teeth, along with the loss of an eye and a broken nose.
“He was associated with a gang, was just angry with the world and didn’t care what he did or who he did it to,” she recalls.
“After health staff got him some false teeth and glasses, we spent a lot of time talking to him in a cross services group. We got him to do small tasks, such as drawing pictures and encouraging him to write down his issues rather than reacting aggressively. We discussed these with him regularly to resolve his concerns.”
Terrance quite quickly showed positive improvements and was able to have his placement and security classification reviewed.
“He was eventually released and moved towns to be with family. His change was, and is, really rewarding.”
Ellie has made some lifelong friends with the colleagues she has worked with over the years, and will continue to stay in close contact with them.
“It has been very rewarding to work with groups of people who put such huge effort into helping prisoners, who need comprehensive and intensive assistance.”
Ellie says she will miss her work, especially the people, the challenge and the difference that her work can make in the lives of those she has worked with.