Jenelle McMaster spent her teenage years sitting on the Town Hall steps in Sydney creating back stories for all the people walking by. So it’s little surprise she became a psychologist. But it wasn’t until seeing Silence of the Lambs that she decided to move in to corrections. What she learned there still holds water today, and is acutely relevant in the current high-stress, low-control environment.
I always felt like I could connect with people really easily. It didn’t matter where they came from or what they did, I always felt that if I could form a genuine connection with them, I could inspire them to do something differently as a result of that connection.
The premise about that power of connection still stands, but over time I realised that relying on that alone was quite naive. When Silence of the Lambs came out, I felt like I was [prison psychologist] Clarice and I could make those connections in the way she did with [serial killer] Hannibal Lecter. It inspired me to write my thesis on the topic, and I subsequently went to work in prisons.
Sometimes just connecting with the inmates and their stories and backgrounds was enough, but many times it wasn’t. It made me understand there were many other constraints – structures, politics, resources, motivation that also came into play. I had to recognise that there was only so many things that I could control, and I learned to focus my time on those aspects. When I was working at Paramatta jail – which at the time was country’s oldest serving jail, a brand new maximum security prison was opening up in a nearby suburb called Silverwater. It was one of those Maxwell Smart kind of jails, quite fancy at the time.
There was an inmate at Parramatta who had been a long-term inmate and was really respected and liked by officers and inmates. He was top of the chain, would sweep the floor of all the offices, that sort of stuff - a really steady pair of hands, and a bit of a “go to” for everybody.
When we were in the process of changing jails, he completely flipped out. It was so uncharacteristic of him. I sat down and said, what’s going on for you? He said, ‘I just don’t want to go, I won’t go’. I didn’t understand why, I thought it was all upside for him, I couldn’t see anything negative. It was down the road, brand new, great facilities, bigger cells.
He couldn’t articulate the problem, but he was extremely agitated and upset. So I asked him to give me one example of what was freaking him out, and he said: “it’s the taps”. In the old jail he had taps where you turn the handle, and the new facility had taps where you lift the lever. I looked at him as if he was insane. But it was at that point I realised it’s not about the taps.
Stress will play out in something like – in this case, the taps because it’s the only thing you can grip on to as an example, but it’s representative of something very different.
What he was freaking out about but didn’t have the words for, was a loss of familiarity, routine and control. A loss of the “world” as he knew it. He knew his place in the current jail, he knew the system, he relished the power of being the go-to point and now he was the same as everybody else, just figuring out this new space, not knowing the answers.