A few years ago while working for The Ministry of Justice, I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It wasn’t visiting Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or Tane Mahuta. It was getting to see the inside of a real working Prison at Rimutaka.
There is, to this day, no way I can properly describe how it felt to be inside. Voyeuristic, somewhat – but also a privilege to see into the world that few get to encounter (and leave by choice). As I walked about, I recall it felt a little like a disturbing yet still eerily real commune, on a bright winter’s day, with fresh clear air and the view of the mighty green Rimutaka Hills, just beyond the high steel fences enclosing the people within. Suddenly it wasn’t on TV on a drama as I’d only ever seen. It was before my eyes.
"What leads you to being a Prison Officer?"
What struck me as I walked in a small group being shown around by a Prison Officer, was how little difference there was between one of these young fit men strolling around in the grass in the low-medium security block, and my friend's boyfriend or my guy friends. Despite the way the media often wants you to see a prisoner – alien, isolated, a lone-wolf – I couldn’t help but wonder to myself “Who is his family? What is he in here for?” I could hardly believe that some of the men were guilty of crimes such as armed robbery, drug related charges or worse. As I looked around, I wondered how do you become a person whose day to day job is to work with and take custody over those society has outcast? What leads you to being a Prison Officer? Since then I've been fascinated by who runs our prison institutions in Wellington.
"Since then, I’ve been fascinated with who runs our prison institutions in Wellington...I was humbled to meet Neil"
This week’s Resident, like many Wellingtonians, is a Civil Servant. However, Chief Custodial Officer Neil Beales day job is unlike many. “It is its own world” he agrees when I explain my experience of Rimutaka Prison. “What people don’t see is the Prison Officer who stays late at work to sit with the guy who has just received a ‘Dear John’ letter. Those stories never make the news. Of course, there are the bad things that happen. But there are moments of humanity, even inside a prison.”
I was incredibly humbled, and excited to meet Neil so I could sit down with a man whose story may seem outwardly less glamorous than many of the creatives and tech gurus on The Residents, but is an true example of the many and varied people who comprise this peculiar little Capital city at the bottom of the world.
“What people don’t see is the Prison Officer who stays late at work to sit with the guy who has just received a ‘Dear John’ letter. Those stories never make the news. Of course, there are the bad things that happen. But there are moments of humanity, even inside a prison.”
WHO IS THIS GUY, NEIL?
Neil Beales is the Chief Custodial Officer for the Department of Corrections in New Zealand. A former actor, commonwealth citizen and a family man, he says he has two children in their late teens and early twenties who he hasn’t told too much about his work to, but says these days when they ask he’s never one to glamourize prison life. “It’s not like the movies. We’re dealing with people who really, you know, it’s - ‘There but for the grace of God go I,” he says. “Sometimes, with student pub life, you might take a swing at someone. You make a mistake even though you didn’t mean to when you woke up that morning and had a momentary lapse of reason. No one knows what will happen to them on any given day.”
"As I walked about, I recall it felt a little like a disturbing yet still eerily real commune, on a bright winter’s day, with fresh clear air and the view of the mighty green Rimutaka Hills, just beyond the high steel fences enclosing the people within."
WHY SHOULD I CARE? ISN’T HE JUST ANOTHER WELLINGTON CIVIL SERVANT?
This guy knows his stuff. Neil has been in this role since December 2012. Prior to that (from October 2009) he was Prison Manager at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo. Prior to his appointment at Auckland Prison, he was in Her Majesty’s Prison Service in the United Kingdom. He joined HM Prison Service in 1991 and by the time of his appointment at Auckland Prison had progressed through the ranks of the service in the UK, including holding a number of management positions, both in custodial and regional office settings. Safe to say, he's a pro.
HOW DID HE GET HERE?
Neil was born in Liverpool, England, in 1970. The family moved to Manchester and then South Africa when Neil was six years old. “I spent all my formative years there. After my father passed away when I was 18 my mother wanted to return to the UK. I’d finished my National Service (as it was in those days), so I became an actor.”
"Neil was born in Liverpool, England, in 1970. The family moved to Manchester and then South Africa when Neil was six years old"
Neil then moved to Yugoslavia, where he met his now-wife and worked for a holiday company as an entertainments manager. While he was there, in 1990, there was the Strangeways Prison Riot in the UK which lasted 26 days.
"I didn’t have tremendous life experience to offer but I had enough. I had the attitude they wanted”
“Following this, the service over there started changing – and it needed to – and I was curious,” Neil explains. “I’d always been interested in working in a structured environment, having been in the Navy, but I was a free spirited person so I wasn’t sure if it was going to work for me. But I found it fascinating. I was 21 and had had an interesting life – leaving school at 16, going into the Navy. I didn’t have tremendous life experience to offer but I had enough. I had the attitude they wanted”
Historically Prison officers have been viewed as staunch, ex-military “lock-em-up-and-leave-em” types. However, at this time the UK programme was changing and moving to a more compassionate model of prisoner officer. “There were some serious infrastructure changes – it was 1991 and some prisoners still had only buckets for sanitation purposes which shocked me.”
“At 16 I was struggling with school and life.” Neil admits “I made a promise to myself never to forget what it felt like to be 16 and feel isolated and ostracised"
Neil ended up working with young offenders frequently. “At 16 I was struggling with school and life.” Neil admits “I made a promise to myself never to forget what it felt like to be 16 and feel isolated and ostracised. Being able to work with young people from very damaged lives and backgrounds was a real privilege. I ended up at Aylesbury prison working with 18-21-year-olds, many of whom had life sentences. Sometimes helping a young person just get through a day is where you have to start.”
Neil started working on the Isle of Wight before moving to Aylesbury Prison and then Huntercombe Prison near Oxford. He also did a period of detached duty at a Military Prison, working with the Army exploring ways to manage young offenders differently. Working at Auckland Prison was also challenging.
“Nothing prepares you for working with female prisoners. Generally, prisons are designed without a specific gender in mind. Yet the issue of how prison design affects those inside prison has only really recently been looked at in real terms"
However, working for a small period of time at a women’s prison, Neil says, was one of the most challenging to date. “Nothing prepares you for working with female prisoners. Generally, prisons are designed without a specific gender in mind. Yet the issue of how prison design affects those inside prison has only really recently been looked at in real terms. We have rarely asked whether it is a prison for males or females. Female prisoners have their own needs and we haven’t got that quite right yet. We have a Principal Policy Advisor working on a strategy at the moment at the Department of Corrections specifically looking at how we can improve in this are. Women’s offending is often more trauma informed and so we need to take that into account and understand how that can affect someone in custody. The last thing we need to do is create a model that further traumatises a woman, or indeed a man.”
Neil also has given a lot of thought to people’s attitude to Prison. “Society sends people to prison as a punishment. There is a punitive aspect yes, I understand that – but that cannot be all there is or all we would be doing is damage. There absolutely has to be a focus on rehabilitation. The majority of our prisoners are on relatively short sentences. They are going to be our neighbours, or next to us at the cinema. If we forget that these prisoners are still to be part of society, we run into huge problems because they eventually will be back among us in most cases.”
"They are going to be our neighbours, or next to us at the cinema"
So how did Neil move to New Zealand? One day, looking online, Neil saw a job advertised. After a lengthy selection process, he finally moved over, attracted by the sporty and green image of New Zealand. In 2009 he began working at as the Prison Director at Auckland Prison, New Zealand’s only Maximum Security Prison and managed that prison until the end of 2012 before moving to Wellington to take up the role of Chief Custodial Officer at the Department’s National Office.
WHAT WOULD I KNOW HIM FOR OUTSIDE OF WORK?
Neil has been known to go to the odd pub and play the guitar. He also has a less common hobby, from his upbringing in South Africa. “I’m also a big ice hockey fan as well. When I lived in Auckland I would often be at the ice rink at the weekend. I’d learnt as a kid in South Africa on those hot summer days. The only thing we don’t have in Wellington which I think we need here is a proper ice rink.”
WHAT DOES HE THINK ABOUT PRIVATISATION?
As a good Wellington Civil Servant, Neil works for the government of the day and does not discuss what his own views on any particular policy may be. “In the UK they started to privatise prisons in the early 90’s. At the time, there needed to be a push but it can happen in several different ways. For example right now, the building of the new Auckland maximum security prison is a being built as a Public Private Partnership, however, we (The Department) will be running it from an operational perspective. The question shouldn’t be whether it is private or public. The question should be is it better than what we had before, is it helping us improve? Privatisation is a reality, we have a prison in South Auckland being run by a private firm today. We have to work within that reality but, as with any aspect of public service we should always be able to hold people accountable for doing their job.’
"The question shouldn’t be whether it is private or public. The question should be is it better than what we had before, is it helping us improve?"
WHAT DOES HE THINK OF THE OVER-POPULATION OF MAORI IN PRISONS?
“People are right to be concerned,” Neil says in a resigned voice. “If you look at the prison population, half identifies as Maori. Particularly in the gang population, where seventy percent identify as Maori. People ask what programmes we run that address Maori. Really, all of it should be. We do have programmes to connect Maori with their traditional heritage such as the Te Tirohanga programme. It is where people can re-engage with their culture, but it won’t solve the problem on its own. These people… come to us… from the Courts. It will need a much more considered view of what else is happening in the social justice area. What can we do in health, in school, that will help people stay away from crime and prison? There are 24,000 children who have a parent or parents in prison and those children stand a much higher risk statistically of coming to prisons themselves. I’m pleased a lot of work is happening in this space but I don’t think it should be underestimated what a challenge this is.”
“People are right to be concerned,” Neil says in a resigned voice. “If you look at the prison population, half identifies as Maori...I don't think it should be underestimated what a challenge this is"
Neil admits that as someone working in corrections for a quarter of a century, he’s seen some very damaged people in his time. “I look at those damaged boys who have had no real chance from the day they were born. It was exceptionally sad and often there’s little you can do to change those people however it is important to continue to try. I have to guard against the cynic in me otherwise, you lose hope and focus. I remember for a while in the 90’s I became cynical about the world. But you learn and mature and even amongst the people in prisons we deal with, there are good people as well. There are very few people I’ve come across who have no hope or good in them (although there have been one or two).”
"I have to guard against the cynic in me otherwise, you lose hope and focus"
“Wellington is a city that draws you in, alleyways,” Neil says, “Even when there is nothing going on in the city you want to come in a look down the nooks and craalleyways. There is always somewhere new opening. I find the people warm and friendly, and open. It just feels like home.”
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To contact Corrections about getting into his line of work (they're looking, Neil says) have a look the link here.