My job: prison life

PSA delegate Andrew Thorne is an acting principal corrections officer at Ngawha Prison near Kaikohe. He’s also a member of the prison negotiating team and was in the news recently when he helped get a prisoner down from the roof.

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Andrew Thorne

It was the thought of contributing to the community that first attracted Andrew to the job 10 years ago.  “I saw an ad in the paper for prison officers. They advertised it as making a safer community and that appealed to me. It seemed to be about putting something back.“

Before becoming a prison officer. Andrew had his own business as a clothing manufacturer. But like many others in manufacturing, the clothing industry was destroyed when the government removed the tariffs.

“Then this opportunity came along. I didn’t know much about the job to start with but I really enjoy it. I get on with people and the job’s about people skills.”

They are skills he also finds useful as a Department of Corrections national delegate. “I think it’s through a combined approach and cooperation between management and employees that we come to the best solutions.”

Safe, secure and humane containment is the Department of Corrections’ watchword, say Andrew. “You have to lock inmates up because that what the justice system has decided. However, if you treat them with a level of understanding and give them some tools so they can make choices for themselves, you are raising the likelihood that they will make better decisions.

“A lot of guys have a set way of dealing with problems, usually some form of aggression whether it’s verbal or physical. They have no other ways and lack strategies to cope with difficulties. I see part of my job as showing them there are different ways to deal with their problems and cope with stress.”

But you can’t switch the lightbulb on for them, he says. “A positive day is when you think you’ve made a breakthrough, or you see a flickering that perhaps the light has gone on.”

Ngawha prison is what’s known as a working prison with the objecting of putting prisoners into meaningful training or employment, either in the community or within the prison.

For some, it can be the first time they’ve felt a sense of achievement. When Andrew set up a sewing workshop, he was amazed at the speed with which one troublesome young prisoner picked up the skills. Within three months, he’d made a jacket which he wore when he was released.

“He was forever causing us grief but he was so proud of what he’d achieved. Everyone has the potential to learn if they want to.”

Fairness and honesty are what gets the respect of prisoners, he says. “As much as we get to know who prisoners are, they are constantly measuring us. You have to treat everyone the same and treat them fairly.”

Andrew’s role as a member if the prison negotiating team is another part of the job. When, after many hours, they managed to talk a prisoner down from the roof, he was particularly pleased that the team had succeeded without the need for outside help.

“In this situation, we go about creating a rapport. The idea is to get them to do what we want without them feeling they’re losing face in front of the other prisoners. We try to do it in such a way that they can maintain some dignity and still feel they’re in control.”

In what little my spare time he has, Andrew is an obsessive do-it-yourselfer. “But my home is a bit like the Mainland cheese advert – things take time to get finished. I’m too likely to get side-tracked with boating and a bit of fishing.”


This article is from the December 2014 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.