Behind Bars: Volunteering at the Otago Corrections Facility

Behind Bars: My time in the Otago Corrections Facility – Written by Jasper Fawcett.

It’s pretty cool to be able to tell your friends that you’re going to prison. I don’t mean actually going to prison – that would not be cool at all. No, I’m talking about going to prison as a volunteer. While I initially signed up for prison volunteering solely so that I could send texts like “Mum, don’t freak out, but I’m going to prison”, I found that by the end of my time at the Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) I had felt happy, sad, entertained, and deeply moved (sometimes all at the same time).

These feelings started during the induction. An hour-long session, run by Corrections officers, designed to put us on our guard so that we wouldn’t “get got” by the inmates. We were warned of all sorts of things they might try – even things as simple as asking us to post a letter for them, asking us for legal advice, or asking us to give them our pen (as some types of pen could potentially be turned into a makeshift tattoo device).

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Nevertheless, an apprehensive bunch of law students drove out to the ‘Milton Hilton’ for our first prison encounter. Reassuringly, all of the guards were friendly and had great senses of humour. We were given panic buttons that we could push if we felt uncomfortable (or, as one of the guards put it, “if someone runs at you with a knife, haha”). The facilities at OCF are amazing. It has underfloor heating, the buildings are modern, and the grounds are immaculately kept. It seems more like an adult-filled primary school than a prison. After a few weeks, the place seemed relatively normal (except for the security scanners at the entrance and the barbed wire fences). And, after talking to the inmates, we began to realise that they were relatively normal too. Yes, they’d made mistakes, and yes, some of them were in too deep to get out – but looking past that, the vast majority of them were just a bunch of human beings, trying to make the most of the hand that life had dealt them.

I spent most of my time in the music group, though I also spent a memorable few weeks playing ‘prison Jenga’ (don’t ask) with the remand prisoners. In the music room, I got to play with those prisoners who had been granted the privilege of playing in the prison band (they have a full drum kit, piano, and electric and bass guitars). Some of us were even lucky enough to witness the OCF version of The X Factor (‘The Chur Factor’) – and we were absolutely blown away. The prisoners’ songs were performed with such talent and such emotion that a number were reduced to tears, as they rapped or sang about the mistakes they had made in their life and how they vowed to do better.

All this humility and emotion showed us the importance of second chances and new beginnings. OCF does an incredible job of recognising this, and they provide a wealth of opportunities for prisoners to channel their aggression and emotions. NZQA qualifications in carpentry, engineering, agriculture, hospitality and baking are all available to those who want to have skills and qualifications for employment on release. Prisoners cook all the food for the prison, make toys for children, build animal traps for the Department of Conservation, weld rubbish skips together, and maintain one of the highest quality dairy farms in the country.

As well as witnessing these amazing initiatives, we also laughed, a lot. The prisoners have incredible senses of humour and they love to talk – particularly because we were a bunch of new faces in their otherwise predictable daily lives. They pleaded for us to bring them McDonald’s, and blue milk (they hate green). They told us, while struggling to keep straight faces, that their favourite TV show is Prison Break, and that their favourite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. Just as we would go to leave, they’d tell us yet another entertaining, too-offensive-to-publish, and possibly made-up, story. Like music, humour seemed to be a way in which they all coped with their situation.

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The thought of leaving the prison was a strange one. We would be going back to our freedom, where we could eat and drink all the McDonald’s and blue milk that we wanted. They were locked away in their cells, knowing that they would be checked through the night and woken at 7am the next morning for unlock. We all take freedom for granted – but it pays to remember that there are some people, just down the road, whose lives are not their own.

Volunteering at OCF was the most rewarding and eye-opening thing I’ve ever done. Particularly as a law student, the importance of seeing what life is like ‘on the other side’ cannot be overstated. I would strongly encourage you all to give it a try – don’t be put off by the horror stories or the rules. You’ll be safe at all times, you’ll have a lot of fun, and you might just find it’s one of the best things you ever do!

The prison is particularly interested in volunteers with art, mediation, music, drama and fitness skills.

If you are interested in volunteering at OCF, keep an eye on your emails for upcoming Law for Change meetings. You can also follow their Facebook page (Law for Change Otago) for updates.

Written by Jasper Fawcett.

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