On Tuesday a huge chapter of my life came to an end, with my final day at my job of more than 7 years as a prison psychologist. Such a bittersweet experience walking away.
I started out as a new graduate with my provisional psychologist registration back in 2007 at a local prison. Studying psychology, I always had an interest in the forensic side, however my main interest was in abnormal psychology and psychopathy. Watching movies or shows like CSI always give such a glorified view of forensic psychology. Luckily I expected that, as a uni lecturer made that very clear during our forensic unit. Still, there was interest there nevertheless.
Scoring my first professional role at the prison was amazing. It was my first proper job interview and they hired me the same day of the interview. I started the following week. Right from the start the job came with challenges. Some of these challenges were of course learning to be a real psychologist… not just one in a lecture hall with a textbook. But it did not take too long to adjust to those basics and start to find my feet.
Moreso the challenges were with the ‘clients’, from acute mental health needs to responding to a person following a major incident. All of this kept almost every single day of those past 7 years interesting and varied.
Sometimes the challenges were in the staffing. Few psychologists stick around long term in corrections. I was a bit of a veteran by the end, out staying every single other psychologist in the centres I worked. It is afterall a fantastic starting point as a provisional psychologist, but not too many want to stick it out beyond that training period. I recommend it though. Corrections builds resilience like few other jobs. I am certainly made of tough stuff after all those years and my ability to handle stress, workplace drama and shocking situations is pretty impressive.
About 5 years ago I moved into the senior psychologist position. A little while after that I became the manager of the Throughcare department, managing the team of psychologists, counsellors and program delivery officers. It made me proud to achieve those things early on in my professional career.
4 years ago the prison I started in closed down and our contract shifted further down the road. A total pain from an under 10 minute drive to work to more than 40. But I stuck it out… had a baby, had 7 months off and went back part time.
For the 10 months they were pretty supportive of my flexible work requests, but with a few changes to my reporting structure, it changed. The support disappeared. My role was amended and responsibility shifted. Pressure was on me to go full time or at least start working my hours to suit the centre, despite there being no impact on how I was doing my work. In the end I wasn’t even really doing a psychologist role so much as just managing staff and programs. A different kind of challenge that comes with its own pros and cons.
I had intended to stick it out til long service leave, hoping to take a year off for another baby to drag the time out painlessly. However it was not to be. It got too hard. A manager putting pressure to choose what is ‘more important’?
Um… hello. My child!! Always my child.
I was still an excellent employee and one of the most reliable, hard working and organised they had. But sometimes it is not enough if you don’t fit the mould they desire. Things got pretty shitty and I got so frustrated after a particularly rough week that I emailed a few random psychologist related services in my local area, just out of curiosity. Turns out my qualifications and experience was pretty well sought after. I had offers for interviews and work from almost everyone I contacted.
So the time had come. I made arrangements to start work as a sole trader, contracting for an organisation who places psychologists in schools for student support. It’s owned my a mother who understands work life balance and the need for flexible hours and working only as much as suited my needs. Sounded like a dream come true.
So I resigned! The bosses had not expected it, which was satisfying as they almost always seem to know these things.
My final month, which only consisted of 9 actual work days being that I was part time, was pretty chilled. I spent most of my work time completing professional development activities online, printing off materials for uni, researching assignments and chatting to my team. I also slept better knowing I was leaving and I felt a sense of calm.
It seems I left a sinking ship with several other resignations following mine around the centre and a few of my team looking to move on too. I am glad I got out while I did. But it is not without some sadness.
With so many years spent in one place you do get to know people well and you form friendships and special bonds. Such an environment as corrections is unique in a way that possible amplifies that bond somewhat. The things you see and hear, the clients you work with, the challenges you face. They have a big impact on people.
Now I’m pretty bad with goodbyes. I get pretty emotional with that stuff and the tears threatened to well up a few times through the day. But I managed to hold it together until I farewelled my final team member in the car park as they all walked me out, flowers and a gift in hand. For the most part, they are a good bunch and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of professionals.
I have now been prison free for 2 days. It hasn’t really sunk in yet as I would normally be on days off now anyway but what I will miss in time is the team atmosphere. My new role will be very independent and at times maybe even a little lonely.
One of the adaptive coping strategies working in corrections is the very dark, warped sense of humour we seem to adopt. Oh yes we laugh at some strange stuff. Desensitisation is essential to be effective in that environment. I will miss the laughs we had as a team and the peer support. I will miss being a part of such a unique workplace community and feeling so confident and competent in my ability. But I will not miss the lack of support from management. The long drive along a road works infested highway. Or the lack of flexibility in hours.
So onto new challenges I go… as a psychologist with school aged children. This is new and even a little scary, but exciting to feel like a real psychologist again after so many years of the limited role of a psychologist in prison.
Wish me luck!