It’s not every day you’ll find a resume that includes nightclub singer and programs officer for the state’s most serious inmates but that’s the case for Gerda Foster.
Gerda swapped the jazz bars of Canberra for casual teaching at Berrima Correctional Centre in 1984 and then moved to Goulburn Correctional Centre as a drug and alcohol counsellor in 1986, later gaining a degree in criminology.
“I literally went from glamour to wearing my frumpish track suits, and dealing with some inmates who have done the most heinous of crimes. But changing their lives is what I’m passionate about and that’s why I’m still here today,” she says.
Gerda is among 10,000 Corrective Services NSW staff celebrated on National Corrections Day, Friday 15 January, for her commitment to reducing reoffending.
The now senior services and programs officer, who began her career by chance when her author husband was running writing courses at Berrima Correctional Centre in the 1980s, says she’s seen great changes within the department over the decades.
“When I first began, we didn’t have the technology or the structured, evidence-based training that our staff are now provided,” she says.
“It came down to our creativeness to assist these offenders and I would run programs involving aerobics, meditation and nutrition because I believe healthy body, mind and spirit leads to behaviour change.
“Workplace culture has improved too – it was male-dominated before but we see more female staff today, there’s greater cooperation between all units and the way we speak with offenders is much more meaningful, which is really important to help these people.”
The grandmother of 21 is also a passionate gardener and has lived a largely self-sufficient life in Bundanoon, publishing a book with her husband, A Year of Slow Food, in 2000 on planting and harvesting.
“There’s been a lot of research done into poor diet and crime delinquency and I do believe if you’re a mentally and physically healthy person when you leave prison, you will want to meet other healthy people and stay clear of your old ways of turning to drugs,” she says.
“Unfortunately we can’t change the past so we need to deal with the here and now, providing them with the support networks and skills to cope and change their attitudes.
“Keeping them engaged leads to successful rehabilitation such as the inmate having a job to get out to and essential services available like housing on release.”
The 2021 National Corrections Day theme is Working together to reduce reoffending, focusing on the ways corrections staff work hard to assist offenders through programs, education, promoting a good workplace culture and positive interactions.
CSNSW includes about 5,000 custodial officers, 1,800 Community Corrections staff, 750 industries workers, 720 psychologists and programs officers and 1,170 Security and Intelligence staff.
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