Real Life

How I live: Prison driver Patricia McMahon

Patricia McMahon (69) has been a prison driver for families in crisis for more than 25 years.
prison driver

“I remember as a young girl being teased at school because I had a hole in my sock. My toe was poking out and someone said to me, ‘Your old man’s in jail.’ It was meant as a joke and even though my father wasn’t in jail, I got most upset.

“Now, as a driver for People at Risk Solutions (Pars), I see the real stigma the families of prisoners suffer, many of whom would struggle to visit their loved ones without outside help. While I feel strongly in support of the phrase ‘do the crime, do the time’, I can’t help but wonder how I would feel if I was in their place.

“I first learned of Pars in a church newsletter. After suffering a brain tumour when I was 50 and undergoing surgery, I was made redundant from my job and began looking for volunteer work. I still have headaches and can’t cope with  the volume of noisy children. I also don’t like housework – I’m not that charitable!

The mum of three says her role has made her more sympathetic to those in prisons.

“My work for Pars started with running a coffee service inside Mount Eden and Paremoremo Prisons. When the prisons brought in vending machines, and no longer needed the service, I began transport duty, which I’ve been doing for more than 25 years. It’s similar to being a taxi driver. I take the contact details of the person I am picking up and arrange a time to make our journey, which can stretch right across Auckland.

“While some of the women I pick up are looking forward to their visits, others are upset. I never ask any questions, but sometimes my passengers share their stories. One lady would break down every time I’d pick her up from her home. She would always take presents for her son, but she told me they’d be taken off him by bullies inside the prison. I called her a few days after one visit to see if she was okay because she had been so distressed.

“Another time, I dropped a woman off at a prison, only to watch her come straight back to the car. It turned out her son had been moved to another prison, without anyone telling her. We shared a cup of coffee and she apologised to me for bringing her all that way. I felt more sorry for her. I said if that had happened to me, I’d be crying my heart out. She just said, ‘When I go home, I’ll cry.’

“It’s not often I have children in my car, but I once drove a baby to a prison. Not a family with a baby, just the baby! It was only a few months old and off to Mount Eden Prison to see its mother. The family put the car seat in and I toddled off.

“If the visits are 30 minutes, I sit in my car with a hot drink and a sandwich. If it’s a two-hour visit, I pop to the shops. I have three children – Fergus (48) Kiernan (45) and Cushla (42) – and while I am no longer married, I still see my former husband from time to time.

When she’s not working for Pars, Patricia enjoys gardening, puzzles, reading and going to nice restaurants.

“My family think I’m a bit mad for using my own car for the job. They say, ‘Why do you want to waste your money and time with prisoners?’ In reality, I’m given a contribution towards the cost and I like seeing the country on my drives. I think it’s great that Pars gives so much assistance to these families because they so often get neglected. I always think, if I was in their position with a loved one in prison, I’d like to be able to visit them too.

“Mine isn’t the kind of role where you build relationships – some women are only visiting the prisons for a few months. I’m giving fewer and fewer rides now, perhaps because more people have their own transport. It’s given me more time in the garden and also to do Meals on Wheels.

“As long as I have my licence, I’ll keep driving for Pars. I like giving these women a ride, getting them home safely and leaving them with a smile, or sometimes even a hug and a prayer. Mostly, the job is about listening and shutting your trap. I don’t pry and I can’t judge – I always think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

As told to Anastasia Hedge

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