Grim reality of life behind bars with our worst women crims
The distressed inmate complains to senior officer Nicole Jess that her night at Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre was punctured with excruciating stomach cramps and she is in need of urgent hospital attention.
She is checked over by a site nurse, groaning and writhing, in apparent unfathomable agony, and transported, handcuffed, to Westmead Hospital where she is escorted by a prison officer to the emergency department.
But the pain was an elaborate ruse to get out of the prison complex.
She had faked the illness so she could be taken to the hospital where illegal drugs, wrapped in plastic, were hidden in the women's toilet.
The phone call the inmate took from a friend a day earlier told her precisely which toilet, along exactly which corridor of the hospital department the drug drop would be executed.
She finds the package of heroin-replacement drug Buprenorphine, or "bupe, stashed in the needle disposal bin.
The banning of visitors to keep COVID-19 out of the state's jail network has sparked a marked rise in prisoners losing sleep. feverishly hatching plans to smuggle drugs and contraband inside.
There have been 135 reported incidents of staff intercepting contraband in mail intended for NSW inmates - up from around 22 this time last year.
As drug withdrawal symptoms escalate so, too, does the elaborate nature of the plots orchestrated to infiltrate the impenetrable maximum security jail, home to some of the most violent inmates, whose "girls" include notorious baby killer water polo champion Keli Lane, killer Rebecca Butterfield, Katherine Knight who butchered her husband then boiled his head and served him up and Sharyn Ward who slowly murdered her nine year old through starvation.
"We've had strips of Buprenorphine hidden under coats of paint on a child's drawing sent to an inmate before it was intercepted by prison staff, we're getting more tennis balls stuffed with drugs thrown over fences, now we're getting the hospital drug drops, we've had to become even more alert during COVID-19 (and) there is heightened tension among the officers; because of the ice epidemic the mood among inmates can change quickly now," said senior correctional officer Nicole Jess.
"Inmates are pretending to be sick, or injuring themselves to go to hospitals to obtain contraband and drugs, we have to rely more heavily on intel to stop drugs being smuggled in."
Ms Jess said COVID-19 has heightened tension by at least 40 per cent in the state's jails.
"There's been a lot of fighting and rioting we've had to dispel.
"When I started the job 32 years ago it was heroin, or pills, now it's mostly Buprenorphine and ice," she said. "There's no coming back from ice, it's cheap, easily available, it fries the brain, it makes inmates aggressive, it makes the environment around us unpredictable.
"COVID-19 has added an extra layer of complexity to our lives as prison officers - this the hardest year in my 32 years in prisons."
With the number of women prisoners leaping from 682 to 1021 between 2011 and 2017, according to BOCSAR, "freshies" arrive by the van-load at the 378-person capacity jail when the courthouse closes.
Corrective Services NSW Commissioner Peter Severin is in the midst of securing funding for up to 50 full body X-ray scanners to be installed at maximum security jails to detect drugs concealed in body cavities, while reducing the need for police strip searches.
Ms Jess tells the 15 staff she oversees on the 7am, C-watch, to be vigilant for makeshift syringes and shivs made from sharpened pens and toothbrushes and burst light bulbs when performing headcounts.
Less than a month after she started her job, she walked in on a woman slashing her intestines with a razor in a cell.
"I had a good childhood and upbringing. I've never come into contact with people like this before," said Ms Jess, the first female leader of the prison union, The Public Service Association.
"When I told my family and friends I wanted to be a prison officer, they were shocked and horrified. Mostly, they were worried about my safety.
"People think we lock up dates and bark orders, it's a lot more complex.
"We're catering for specific needs, during the bush fires, we had staff at the fence putting out flames, at Mary Wade Correctional Centre inmates lit a fire and staff had to resuscitate an inmate, and there's more mental health in prisons now, a lot of chronic self harm.
"If there's a death in custody, we have to administer First Aid and ensure the environment is safe for doctors and paramedics.
"We're not classed as frontline workers but the majority of the community doesn't care about what happens to prisoners one behind bars, they care about the police putting them there, there's no money at the back end of justice."
Based predominantly at Silverwater jail, Ms Jess is one of the tireless men and women who proudly walk Corrective Services NSW's 29 jails and myriad NSW court cells, overlooked, putting their lives on the line, dealing with the state's worst humans every day, but retaining an impressive decorum filled with confidence, compassion and humour.
The base wage is $80,000 but the Academy course doesn't prepare for the confronting reality of what the job can entail.
Two weeks ago, teargas was fired at inmates after a major riot at Long Bay Jail wafted into neighbouring streets choking passers-by and residents who described a "chemical fog" that spread as far as the beach and caused their eyes and throats to burn.
Prison officers were forced to deploy the gas about midday after more than 80 inmates, some armed with makeshift weapons, rioted in protest over COVID-19 restrictions that have barred visitors from smuggling drugs into the complex.
One inmate was taken to hospital after being bitten by a corrective services dog when he refused to drop a jail-made weapon.
It comes as one officer was taken hostage for five hours by drug-starved prisoners - who are believed to have previously fed their addictions through visitors smuggling in drugs.
Prison officers are not armed in the yard, their only defence is their mouth and an alarm in the event of assault, and gas allowed to be carried in maximum and high security prisons.
"There are millions of interactions we have to deal with," said Ms Jess, adding, "We see prisoners more than their family does.
"I'm proud of that uniform, we're not allowed to brag about it like paramedics or police officers, we need to be careful what we say in public, we deal with some of life's toughest criminals, I love my job, it gets in your blood.
"We deal with it by putting on the uniform the next day and getting on with it."
Originally published as Grim reality of life behind bars with our worst women crims