Working in a prison has traditionally been a male domain, but women are now a common sight in the wings of Parklea Correctional Centre, where more than a third of officers are women.
One woman who has spent most of her career in corrections is Parklea’s Head of Residence Lisa Barrett.
After seeing a TV show about prisons when she was a teenager, Lisa was keen to enter the little-known world of corrections. Facing staunch resistance from her family, she took a more traditional clerical job but couldn’t get a career in corrections out of her head.
“I have a personality that when people say I can’t do something it makes me more determined, so I went for the interview and was successful and graduated from the Corrective Services academy when I was 20,” Lisa said.
Women had only been admitted as correctional officers in male prisons in the mid-eighties, and she quickly realised not all of her male colleagues were happy to have her on the team.
“The male officers automatically thought women were too weak and couldn’t look after themselves. On my first day at Emu Plains, not only was I not accepted by the staff, but the inmates gave me a hard time as well.
“I really had to prove myself before some officers would even talk to me, but that was the culture back then and if you couldn’t handle it, you just left the job.”
Despite the obstacles, Lisa was determined to stay the course.
“I was very determined that I was not going to let the negativity get to me,” Lisa said.
“I concentrated on my resilience and I always had a sense of humour, which helps on bad days, but I always remained professional and never took anything personally.”
Over 30 years, Lisa made her way up the ranks in Corrective Services NSW to become Senior Assistant Superintendent before joining the Parklea senior management team in 2020.
“I progressed to senior roles through study, experience and an attitude to keep going, even when I was told I was unsuccessful for roles. I took rejection as a need for redirection and focused on continuous improvement.”
Despite the hurdles, Lisa is glad she defied her family all those years ago.
“Over the years I have seen many changes for the better for both staff and inmates,” Lisa said.
“The leadership has changed over the years to ensure staff are very supported and there is a real focus on inmate rehabilitation, which I have always wanted to be a part of.
“Every day is different, and seeing the changes in inmates is what keeps me coming back. Plus, the working relationships you build is a real brother/sisterhood, which you can’t find in other workplaces.”
Women like Lisa have blazed a trail for others to follow, making it much easier and more common for young women to pursue a career as a correctional officer.
Rhiannon Laws is one of the many Gen Y’s who has joined the almost 300 officers at Parklea. Before starting her corrections career, she was a legal assistant for five years in the medical negligence team at a law firm.
She had been curious about what happens inside a prison, so she finally applied and began her training in 2021. She said people were quite shocked when she told them she works in a prison.
“I think people are taken aback that a small, young female works in a maximum-security prison,” Rhiannon said.
She said being surrounded by strong women makes the job easier.
“Being guided and taught by fellow female officers who have worked in this industry for so long provides reassurance that we can work safely and confidently in a prison, as they have so much knowledge and experience to pass on to their newer colleagues,” Rhiannon said.
She said she liked her job because every day was different.
“I deal with so many different people every day and no one person is the same,” Rhiannon said.
“Working in corrections, but also being in a remand centre, you see all types of people come through and it’s quite eye-opening how different life on the outside is for some people and how they ended up being in here.”
She said if young women were interested in starting a career in corrections, they should take the next step.
“We are seeing more and more young females wanting to step into this role and realising how challenging it is, but if they have the drive to do so and want to succeed, then they absolutely can do that.”
Parklea Correctional Centre is operated by MTC Australia on behalf of Corrective Services NSW.