9 May 2023

Leigh is one of 10 women starting a new job in Canberra's prison, and she's undaunted

| James Coleman
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woman outside a prison

New ACT Corrective Services recruit Leigh Coates outside the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Leigh Coates used to test sewerage and water samples at the ALS Environmental Services laboratory in Fyshwick, but as of this week, she is starting her first shift inside Canberra’s prison. And she’s looking forward to it.

“I love a challenge, so when the job came up, I thought, ‘This could be interesting’,” she says.

“It ticked all my boxes, and the shifts were brilliant because I’ve now got a grandson, so I can spend a bit more time with him and the family.”

Leigh was one of 20 new custodial officers welcomed into ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) on Friday, 5 May.

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The ceremony is normally held twice a year, but this one made history as the first time exactly half of the recruits have been female, in line with the ACT Government’s push to get more women in this space.

“Go the gender equality in this job,” Leigh says.

“There’s a real variety of people, ages and cultures in there. It’s great to see everyone is so supportive – male, female – no matter what rank.”

ACTCS Commissioner Ray Johnson welcomed the new officers, selected from more than 260 applicants during a “stringent selection process” and then trained over 13 weeks to prepare for the “challenges of working within a correctional environment every day”.

“They should all feel incredibly proud of how far they have come,” he said.

“These graduates join their colleagues in helping to transform the lives of those in our care while performing a vital role helping to keep the community safe.”

women standing outside a prison

Some of the new female recruits, including Leigh (middle). Photo: Michelle Kroll.

ACT Minister for Corrections Mick Gentleman also passed on his congratulations.

“ACTCS is an integral part of the criminal justice system and staff do an important and challenging job,” he said.

The new recruits arrive a year on from an ACT Government report that outlined a troubled work environment in the AMC.

The Blueprint for Change: A new future for custodial services, handed down in April 2022, followed reports of assaults on staff and allegations of racism towards Aboriginal inmates, and cited inadequate staffing, poor staff culture and unsafe conditions.

An oversight committee, headed up by the former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Christine Nixon, investigated staff rosters, overtime, leave, workplaces injuries, policy, training and service delivery throughout the AMC and ACTCS Court Transport Unit (CTU) – which transports people between detention and court – between July 2021 and March 2022.

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They found staff felt undervalued by management, wore ill-fitting uniforms and lacked proper equipment, including crowd control tools, fit-for-purpose vehicles, standard-issue handcuffs, radios, and OC pouches.

The report called for improvements across these areas “within three months”, along with the appointment of an external expert to advise on staffing numbers “within six months”. The recruitment process was also in need of “improvements”.

At the time, Mr Gentleman welcomed the report.

“Supporting the staff … was a key priority of mine when I commenced in this portfolio,” he said in April 2022.

He confirmed on 5 May this year the recommendations are on track to give “ACTCS the framework to continue to provide a safe, encouraging and inclusive workplace for all”.

“I anticipate that the addition of the new cohort of recruits will only add to those commitments. I look forward to seeing the work they all do in the future.”


The prison gates at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

As for Leigh, she “can’t wait” to start her first 12-hour shift at 7:30 am today (9 May).

“I don’t doubt there will be days when it’s not going to be all that great, but on the whole, each time I’ve gone in, it’s been a really positive feeling,” she says.

For her, it’s about the satisfaction of helping others.

“Not everyone is going to change, but there’s a few people in there you can possibly steer on the right course and get their wellbeing together. It will be wonderful to help them on their journey.”

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