Silverwater TBA
Silverwater TBA

Bad girls: Behind bars with our fiercest female felons

Sarah shuffles out of prison Cell 21, her eyes darting with anxiety, and is ordered to place her handcuffed hands above her head and face the wall.

The petite, chestnut-haired prisoner, restlessly slouches in loose greens, the thick air circulating with every slow turn of the ceiling fan at Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre, and succumbs to tears.

An inmate waits outside her cell as corrections officers conduct a search of inmates cells for contraband at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson
An inmate waits outside her cell as corrections officers conduct a search of inmates cells for contraband at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson

"Please, why me, it's not mine…," she initially protests, "Why does it always have to be me?"

A pair of dark menacing eyes peers through a slot of the solid wooden door of cell 16.

"You all right Sarah? We love you," the inmate bellows, averting her eyes to take in the phalanx of Immediate Action Team officers and shouting, "Yous are all a bunch of c**s*."

Sarah, the mother of a young daughter, is no more than 30 and serving time for burglary.

Intelligence officers have intercepted three contraband finds in mail addressed to her in recent weeks.

Corrections officers conduct a search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility in search of contraband. Picture: Richard Dobson
Corrections officers conduct a search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility in search of contraband. Picture: Richard Dobson

Today an IAT team wearing sophisticated new body worn cameras have put her through an invasive but necessary strip search for concealed contraband - weapons or drugs and searching the confines of the stark cell she shares with a resigned bespectacled inmate at Australia's toughest women's prison.

The impenetrable maximum security jail is home to some of the most violent inmates whose "girls" include notorious baby killer water polo champion Keli Lane, Sydney terrorist plotter Alo-Bridget Namoa, "too dangerous to be released" killer Rebecca Butterfield, serial child killer Kathleen Folbigg, Sharyn Ward who slowly murdered her nine year old through starvation, and newly accused Jessica Camilleri, charged with beheading her mother in a domestic argument in St Clair in July.

Manager of Security at Silverwater Jail Ken Pese briefs corrections officers ahead of a contraband search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson
Manager of Security at Silverwater Jail Ken Pese briefs corrections officers ahead of a contraband search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson

With the number of women prisoners leaping from 682 to 1,021 between 2011 and 2017, according to BOCSAR, "freshies" arrive by the van-load at the 378 capacity jail when the courthouse closes.

At a briefing for Monday's raid, corrective services functional manager of security Ken Pese urges officers to be vigilant for syringes and weapons, to check equipment and ensure body-worn cameras rolled out to front line officers this month are switched on.

"The plan is to make sure they don't know what's coming, we have to be strategic, we enter though the rear of Teresa Wing and directly to cells 19 and 21," he stresses.

Cell 21 of Teresa east wing has blunt metal bunks, a shower and a toilet with a bare porcelain rim for a seat, and some hostile graffiti on the door: "F**k the police - jail is full of dumb useless c***s."

Another reads: "I love Sam forever."

Corrections officers search a cell looking for contraband during a search of inmates cell at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson
Corrections officers search a cell looking for contraband during a search of inmates cell at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson

Sarah's wall is covered in selfies of her and her daughter, plastic white flowers dress the desk and rosary beads dangle from the ceiling.

Two deployed IAT officers in Latex rubber gloves upturn beds and rifle through personal belongings. They check inside deodorant sticks, the rim of the 30cm television (inmates fight over watching Home And Away, Married At First Sight and Love Island), inside the hems of underwear, jars and containers.

Officers find two loaded syringes, one shortened and concealed inside a Nivea lip balm and a ring used for currency to barter.

Sarah admits they're hers.

A woman in her 50s in flowery pyjamas from a neighbouring cell watches the commotion, over her shoulder, handcuffed hands flat against the wall.

She's seen it all before.

For her, this is normality; time that becomes irrelevant, days that become unrecognisable. The crushing dullness of routine.

Another cell is raided.

Corrections officers search a cell looking for contraband during a search of inmates cell at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson
Corrections officers search a cell looking for contraband during a search of inmates cell at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson

"Stand back, sometimes you get urine thrown over you, it can get very hostile and aggressive when we do surprise raids," says Mr Pese, an imposing 6ft plus officer.

"That's why it's important that if we get assaulted, or accused of assaulting, we can use cameras that play back quickly to show what happened."

Peace has returned to Teresa Wing east side.

The jeering, banging and heckling was deliberate to alert their neighbours though balconies on the west side a contraband raid was underway.

More rooms are searched, cells are searched, bodies searched.

 

 

 

 

"We've lost the element of surprise of surprise now for the west wing but we still go in," Pese encourages.

Curiously, pears are confiscated out of one cell and strips of the prescription drug buprenorphine and pain relief Panamax tablets.

"Pears and apples are common this time of year, it's because it's coming up to Christmas and they stockpile them and ferment them for brews and they make cheesecake out of fermented milk," explained one intelligence officer.

"They're so smart, they find a way for everything."

Substances searched will be chemically tested so they can be identified.

Prisoners responsible stand to lose visiting rights and the ability to buy extra rations and supplies.

Corrections officers head towards a cell block to conduct a search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson
Corrections officers head towards a cell block to conduct a search of inmates cells at the Silverwater Jail womens facility. Picture: Richard Dobson

The tireless men and women of Corrective Services NSW who proudly walk the Silverwater corridors and myriad NSW court cells are 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.

"What we do can be challenging, I've had urine, faeces, all sort thrown over me," said acting senior IAT officer Tanya Black.

"We take anything that can be used as a weapon, a broken razor blade, or shard of mirror, even if we confiscate one syringe, that's a successful raid,- it minimises harm to other inmates and us."

Prisoners names have been changed

Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections Anthony Roberts said IATs across the State will receive cameras as early as this month.

"Our Corrections Officers do a great job under challenging circumstances -it's vital we provide them with the latest technology to enable them to do that job safely and effectively," Mr Roberts said.