In 1991, Pasimaca Osment became one of the first female prison officers in New Zealand to work in a maximum-security jail. And as Joanna Wane discovers, she’s still dishing out tough love to the inmates who call her “Mama”.
Ninety minutes later, she was in a van loaded up with riot gear, heading for Spring Hill jail in the Waikato, 70km south. From the top of a rise past Meremere, she could see the jail was burning. “It’s action, boys,” she told her team. “Get ready.”
On 1 June 2013, some inmates drunk on homebrew – made from a mix of fruit, sugar, water and alcohol-based hand sanitiser – attacked the guards on their unit and took over the staff base. By the time specialist “control and restraint” squads arrived, 27 prisoners had barricaded themselves in, lighting fires and trashing the unit. A report later put the cost of the riot at $10 million.
Hours passed in a tense stand-off before a sudden change in the direction of the fire left a section of the roof on the verge of collapse. When orders came to storm the unit, Osment led in the first wave, with another section commander running his team on her flank.
“They’d shut down the only door we could access, so we got our biggest guy to get a crowbar in there and bouf!” she says. “It was go, go, go.”
As they broke through, a volley of projectiles flew towards them from the smoke. Osment didn’t let on at the time but she wasn’t feeling too flash. The day before, she’d been in hospital having chemotherapy treatment for the cancer that still lights up her CT scans like a glowworm colony on her lungs. Lifting her riot helmet, she sucked in a big breathe of air and ran in.
The smoke was so thick, the only way she could only tell the officers from the prisoners was by looking down to see who was wearing shin pads. So she sensed rather than saw someone coming at her from behind, swinging a metal basketball hoop that had been ripped from the wall. Blocking the blow with her shield, she used her baton to take out his legs. “Mowing the lawn”, they call it. And by the time the squad reached the other side of the unit, there wasn’t a blade of grass left standing.
With all the rioters cuffed and loaded into prison vans, Osment and her team had just sat down to a feed of fish and chips when the call came through that they were needed in another section of the prison, where trouble was starting to brew. “Some of the boys put a handful of chips into their pockets,” she says. “By the time we’d finished, they were slush.”
And by the time Osment climbed into bed that night, the residents of Spring Hill prison had learnt what hundreds of other inmates across the country already knew: You don’t mess with Mama.
“Fuzzy-wuzzy!” Osment laughs, when she sees the old photos, pointing to the afro that added a good couple of inches to her height. Back then, the wiry former national squash player and competitive ballroom dancer weighed just 57kg.
At 68, she’s a little more stooped, a little thicker around the waist. But in three decades working with some of New Zealand’s most dangerous prisoners, including long stints in Paremoremo’s high-risk and psychiatric units, she’s known for being both mentally and physically tough, a reputation built not on fear but respect. When one inmate punched her in the face – the only time she’s ever been assaulted – the other prisoners in his unit had to be warned against taking retribution on her behalf.
A mother of five, including two sets of twins, Osment was born in Fiji, where she trained as a nurse before moving to New Zealand. Now a principal corrections officer based at Auckland’s remand prison in Mt Eden, she was brought over from Paremoremo in 2015 as a troubleshooter to help knock the place back into shape after it became clear private operator Serco had lost control of the jail.
Osment swept through the cell blocks, bringing discipline back to the ranks on both sides of the bars, before being put in charge of the prison kitchen and laundry. And if that sounds like a soft job, consider what could go horribly wrong when you’re managing a workforce of 26 inmates with access to boiling water and extremely sharp knives.
“Running this place is very challenging. Look at them, they’re free here,” she says, looking out from her glass-panelled control room – although you’re just as likely to find her out on the floor, monitoring chicken gravy simmering in one of the huge cooking pots, or mucking in on the production line where hundreds of sandwiches are made every morning (spaghetti and luncheon sausage, peanut butter, cheese and onion, coleslaw).
“Anything can happen, just like that. But being a mother, I just step in to make things work.”
Osment might not have much in common with “Mama”, the sassy, corrupt prison warden in the hit musical Chicago. For starters, she doesn’t smoke or drink, she can’t abide profanity, and there are roosters, not “chickies”, in her pen. (Apart from a brief spell at Arohata in Wellington, Osment has always chosen to work in men’s prisons because she thinks male inmates are easier to manage, and that having positive female role models might make them re-evaluate the violence they dish out to women and start seeing them as more than commodities.) But although their moral compasses point in opposite directions, the motto she and her Chicago namesake live by is the same: “If you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you.”
It’s not only inmates who call Osment “Mama Pam”. So do the prison officers, the probation staff, and even the parole board when she gives evidence at a hearing. “They ask, ‘What do you say, Mama? Aaah, PCO Osment...’ They always catch themselves,” she laughs.
“I’m a straight shooter. I always tell them how I think. If someone is really trying hard, I will speak for them. But I’m open with the prisoner. Are you going to give me the goodies? Are we going to work together? Otherwise I tell the judge this boy is telling porkies. For the safety of the public, I wouldn’t recommend this person to go out, but I’m willing to work with him. ‘Okay, stand down for a year...’”
In a way, many of the inmates are like children. Some need to be told to wash every day or taught how to make their beds properly. A shocking number are illiterate. Osment encourages them to study and helps read their letters from home; sometimes she acts as a go-between if they’ve become estranged from their families. She’s watched hard-core recidivists come and go; seen three generations of one family incarcerated at the same time. What she never does is look at an inmate’s file to see what they’re in for, unless she’s writing a parole report.
“People judge them by what they’ve done, rather than look deeper and ask what their home life is like? What’s their education? People say, ‘Don’t you hate them?’ But hate is a luxury I don’t have in here. It’s demeaning. It dehumanises these men and it’s a barrier to being effective when you’re dealing with them.
“The most tender thing in anybody is that feeling of worth. I tell the prisoners I love them, because some of them don’t know the meaning of love. It’s a tiny word, but it’s a word that embraces everybody. It raises people up from the ground. Maybe they think their mother and father doesn’t love them. I say, ‘Here, I’m your mother and I love you very much. And we need to work together as a team to get you out of here.’”
“Pam is tough as; crims used to throw out the contraband from their cells as soon as they heard her voice,” she laughs. “But they love her because she’s firm, but she’s fair. She looks at them and doesn’t see a deadbeat; she sees a person who’s done something wrong and is in there as punishment, not for punishment. But if they want to play silly games, she’ll dance with them.”
Dennis spent 12 years at Paremoremo before moving north to Pākiri and now works for WINZ in Warkworth. She reckons the inmates were a lot easier to win over than some of the male wardens, who made it clear women weren’t welcome and tried to undermine their authority. Even worse were the officers’ wives, who were so hostile Dennis and Osment had to live off-site rather than in the staff village.
“We knew we had to watch our backs,” says Dennis, “and the three of us stuck together like glue.” (Marina Rea, who was also in that original intake, has since died of cancer.)
Under intense media scrutiny at the time, Osment and Dennis refused to be interviewed for the Listener article unless their male colleagues were also given the opportunity to talk about the challenges of working at New Zealand’s only maximum-security prison. Officer Trevor Twin called it a “bloody depressing place” and blamed the frustrations and aggression he encountered on the job as a major factor in the collapse of his marriage. He admitted to reservations about having female officers as back-up if a prisoner turned nasty. “They may be stronger than me,” he said. “Pam is certainly fitter. But there are inborn feelings that a man has to protect a woman and time won’t change that.”
Today, 20.7% of corrections officers across Paremoremo are women, with 29% nationwide. Northern regional commissioner Jeanette Burns – another pioneering woman – told North & South female officers bring a “slightly gentler set of skills” to the role, including an ability to de-escalate or talk down a situation before it gets out of hand.
“At the same time, if you’re in Delta Block at Pare, you wouldn’t have three female officers working a landing, in case there’s an incident. You do need the brawn sometimes.”
Burns was in command at the Spring Hill prison riot in 2013 and it was her call to storm the unit – bringing the 11-hour incident to an end with only minor injuries suffered by either staff or inmates. Osment was among several “advanced controllers” Burns acknowledged for their part in the operation, flying them down for a presentation she gave at a senior leadership forum in Wellington.
“We needed the best and we had the best,” she says. “There was every combination of factors where it could have gone so badly wrong: fire, violence, alcohol. And it got dark. It’s the only incident I’ve led where prisoners were physically fighting the people who were trying to save their lives.”
Burns first met Osment at Paremoremo 18 years ago, when “Mama Pam” was pregnant with her second set of twins. Like Osment, she originally trained as a nurse, before moving into health management, and has three children of her own. Currently, she’s on a three-month secondment overseas, looking at alternative models for prisoners needing mental-health care, and the use of halfway houses to help offenders transition back into the community.
In the years they’ve worked together, Burns says Osment’s faith in humanity hasn’t dimmed. “I’ve been through some tough times with her professionally: Spring Hill, the Step In [when Corrections took over Mt Eden prison from Serco], some pretty big incidents up at Paremoremo, where I was lead. I’ve never seen her falter or lose that positivity.
“Many men in here don’t respect the women in their own family, but they do respect the authority of women in the prisons. Mostly. You can’t get complacent about that. But they recognise honesty and that very caring authority.
“I’ve seen Pam sorting out corrections officers down on the unit, and getting right up into the face of a big prisoner saying, ‘Don’t you talk to me like that, it’s not respectful’, in that matriarchal, actually Pacific woman kind of way. And these tough, grown men are standing there with their eyes down. ‘Sorry, Mama...’ You have to earn that.”
Claude Dennis, who’s ex-Army, was a mother figure for many of the inmates at Paremoremo, too. She remembers being in Queen St with Osment one day when they were surrounded by patched gang members.
“A woman [passing by] thought these guys were attacking us and called the cops,” she says. “But all they wanted to do was show us their babies...”
“The only place you’d ever see me was up a coconut or a mango tree,” she says. “It was a beautiful, innocent childhood. Morning prayers. And on Sunday, nothing moves, not even washing.”
To fill in the hours when she was a young nurse on night shift, she began writing to two penpals: one in Nigeria and one in New Zealand. She met the Kiwi for the first time when he flew over to Fiji for her 21st birthday party and proposed. Fiji was a British colony then, on the brink of independence, and her parents were proud she was marrying a Pākehā, despite having already picked out a suitable husband much closer to home. “I’ll marry who I want to marry,” she told them. “I’ll choose my own husband, thank you very much.”
They settled in Wellington and Osment was shocked by how sexualised society was here, compared to Pacific culture. “Man, this is a heathen nation,” she thought. The local Methodist congregation was too elderly, so she got talking to some Mormons on the street and joined the Latter-day Saints.
When her marriage eventually broke up, leaving her with three sons to raise, she prayed to be given a mission serving people. She found it at Mt Crawford Prison, where she turned up at the door one day and talked the superintendent into giving her a trial.
She shrugs off how tough that was, working with men who didn’t believe she belonged there and didn’t bother to hide their resentment. But by the time she got to Paremoremo, nothing really rattled her. One morning, she walked into the staff kitchen and found the walls plastered with Playboy centrefolds. “That could be your wife, your daughters…” she told the guards who were watching to see how she’d react. The pin-ups were gone by lunchtime.
Her second husband, Anthony, is a retired Air New Zealand engineer. The couple met playing squash and have twin girls together. Eight years ago, Osment hit a “bit of a bump on the road” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, but tumours spread to her lungs. She fits weekly chemotherapy sessions around her shifts at Mt Eden, playing church hymns in the car on her way to work each morning to settle her mind.
“I know and believe I have the strength to overcome it,” she says. “I come from Fiji so I’m a coconut. You can’t crack me.”
Mt Eden prison director Dennis Goodin describes Osment as a trailblazer for women on the frontline in Corrections, admired for her skill and integrity. “Not to mention her great sense of humour,” he says. “Her passion for her job, as well as her compassion for the people she supports, has never wavered.”
She’s seen some terrible things over the years, especially during her time in the acute unit at Paremoremo. Bodies hanging in cells. An inmate who killed someone when he was out on parole so he’d be sent back to prison because he felt safest there. A disturbed prisoner who sliced open his scrotum and threw his testicles at the staff. The explosive, unpredictable violence caused by P. The stigma of AIDS. The growth of youth gangs like the Killer Beez. “I’ve seen the sights,” says Osment, who can instinctively smell trouble when she walks into a unit, like a shark at the scent of blood.
In July, she’ll turn 69 and will consider retiring. Nobody’s betting on that.
“I never say shut the door and throw away the key,” she says. “I always see that little light within. I say to the prisoner, ‘Let’s talk together’, and I look deeper in and I see. I tell them, if you plant a seed and keep watering it, after a while it will break into flower.
“I’m not saying I’m going to change the world. But if I can change just one life, I have done my job as a corrections officer. Because we have to have hope. Otherwise what is there?”
This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.