Prison officer Liz Cunico can handle all the wolf whistles from sexually frustrated and disrespectful male inmates – they just better not touch her dog Alice.
The 27-year-old and her kelpie-border collie cross are part of a new breed in the K9 unit of the New South Wales prison system’s Security Operations Group.
Ms Cunico is a former automotive electrician and onetime rugby league player for Panthers Brothers who joined Corrective Services four years ago.
Alice was a stray – found under a bridge in Orange in the state’s central west and scouted at an RSPCA shelter – who has been trained as a drug detection dog.
Prison officer Liz Cunico can handle all the wolf whistles from sexually frustrated and disrespectful male inmates – they just better not touch her dog Alice. The pair is pictured
Ms Cunico and Alice can be called to any jail in NSW to conduct drug searches. ‘We search every cell, every jail, every inmate,’ Ms Cunico said. Officers are pictured at the privately-operated Parklea Correctional Centre
Ms Cunico is often found at the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Prison (pictured) at Silverwater in western Sydney where she screens inmates for drugs including heroin
The pair can be called to any men’s or women’s jail but can most often be found in Sydney’s Long Bay, Silverwater and Francis Greenway prison complexes.
‘We search every cell, every jail, every inmate,’ Ms Cunico said.
The only place Alice is not welcome is the bakery at Long Bay, due to health regulations about animals being around fresh produce.
‘She’d probably want to eat it as well,’ Ms Cunico said.
Ms Cunico calls Alice her ‘little sidekick’ and ‘five-eighth’, to use footballing parlance. She likes to think Alice considers her ‘Mum’.
‘I’m very out there, an energetic, bubbly person,’ she said. ‘I’m so much like Alice and Alice is so much like me.’
The pair graduated from the K9 training course together and have been working as a team for the past year.
‘I’m very out there, an energetic, bubbly person,’ Ms Cunico said. ‘I’m so much like Alice and Alice is so much like me.’ The pair graduated from the K9 training course together and have been working as a team for the past year
Alice is a passive alert detection dog, trained to sniff out odours of drugs including heroin, ice, cannabis and the opiod buprenorphine, known as bupe.
Work can take them from Sydney to maximum security jails in Goulburn, Lithgow and Kempsey, searching cells and screening inmates and visitors.
‘There’s something different every day,’ Ms Cunico said.
Alice is pictured after she was rescued from living under a bridge in Orange in central western New South Wales
One day she might be on kennel duties, then the next could be conducting an operation at Long Bay and be called to Bathurst to get an inmate off a roof.
Like most SOG officers, Ms Cunico is trained to work in heights for those extractions and is a qualified member of an Immediate Action Team.
On her days off Ms Cunico takes overtime shifts at the Silverwater and Dillwynia women’s prisons.
‘I like working in the women’s jails because I get to interact with the women more,’ she said. ‘It gives me a bit of a mix.’
Men’s prisons can present a more confronting environment for female officers, regardless of their age or appearance.
‘You definitely get a lot of the whistle calls and stuff like that,’ Ms Cunico said.
‘They will never say anything to your face but as soon as you walk away they’ll go, “Oooh, she’s hot”.
‘They’ll stand at the fence and when you walk past they’ll go, “Oooh, look at that”.
Prisoners are ingenious at getting drugs into prisons. When this card was dismantled at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre prison officers found 12 strips of bupe, an opioid prescribed to replace heroin
Staff at Long Bay’s Metropolitan Special Programs Centre pulled apart these shoes and found two mobile phones, 35 bupe strips, super glue, tobacco and USBs
Ms Cunico’s response is to remain calm but to confront the inmate. ‘I would never go up and say, “Don’t ever f***ing dare say that”.’
Instead, she will say something like, “You whistled for me from over there and when I walked past you didn’t say anything. I’m here now, what is it?”
The usual response is, “Nothing miss, don’t worry about it.”
‘I don’t understand it,’ Ms Cunico said. ‘Have they never seen a female before? I’m sure they have girlfriends.
‘I’m always the same – will treat you with respect, as long as I get it back in return.’
If an inmate wants to go on with it he might face a search of their cell or, worse for his standing with fellow prisoners, a sweep of their whole wing.
It was not love at first sight when Ms Cunico came to the K9 unit in October 2019 and laid eyes on Alice, who did not know even basic commands such as ‘stay’ and ‘sit’
Ms Cunico is capable of moving beyond the softly-softly approach with difficult inmates when necessary.
‘I try to negotiate first,’ she said. ‘The last option we want to do is use force and going the violent route.
‘We never want to go down that road because normally someone gets hurt. But sometimes they’re absolute idiots and then you’re going to have to do that.’
Inmates will sometimes resist being screened by drug dogs. ‘They get the drugs and they just go all crazy, they put us in danger,’ she said.
‘It’s also scary with dogs because we get very close and personal with the inmates when we screen them. They’ll try and kick it.
‘If someone was to kick Alice or any dog we’d grab them straight away. If that happens, we’ll drop them because no one’s going to assault my dog.’
Men’s prisons can present a confronting environment for female officers, regardless of their age or appearance. A pod in the maximum security Hunter Correctional Centre is pictured
It was not exactly love at first sight when Ms Cunico came to the K9 unit in October 2019 and laid eyes on Alice, who did not know even basic commands such as ‘stay’ and ‘sit’.
‘When I first met her she was so crazy, so full on,’ Ms Cunico said.
‘We normally get rescue dogs and stuff like that so sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don’t.
‘I was kind of unsure with Alice but then once we started training and started to create that bond and she started to trust me and I started to trust her it was just a match made in heaven.’
Alice has never been attacked by a prisoner but Ms Cunico knows she can defend herself if need be. ‘Some inmates go, “Can I pat it?’ she said.
‘She will bite you if I’m not there, if I’m not watching, because she’s very protective. She’s got my back just like I’ve got her back.’
Inmates were always coming up with new ways to get drugs into prison and where to hide them. Those bringing them in include corrupt officers, ground maintenance staff and visitors. A muster at Hunter Correctional Centre is pictured
Ms Cunico said inmates were always coming up with new ways to get drugs into prison and where to hide them. Those bringing them in include corrupt officers, ground maintenance staff and visitors.
Alice has found bupe-laced hair ties on children, drugs in tennis balls thrown over walls, in prams and hollow pens with hidden syringes.
‘When we go into a jail or something like that she switches straight on,’ Ms Cunico said. ‘You and me together, let’s find the drugs. She’s a good girl.’
During a cell search Ms Cunico can tell just by the weight of a packet of noodles or a can of Coke if it holding something it shouldn’t.
Inmates put out food or try to use soap to mask a drug’s odour. They open windows and turn on fans.
‘They try not to bring in marijuana because it’s got the stench,’ Ms Cunico said.
‘It took us a while but now we have this bond where she doesn’t leave my side,’ Ms Cunico said. ‘She’s always with me and we just adore each other’
Searches also reveal mobile phones, SIM cards, USB sticks, tobacco and jail-made weapons, the latter mostly in ‘heavy’ units where inmates want protection.
Alice lives with Ms Cunico and they are inseparable.
‘It took us a while but now we have this bond where she doesn’t leave my side,’ she said. ‘She’s always with me and we just adore each other.
‘I find it amazing you can get a dog from the pound that no one wanted, found under a bridge to a dog that now has literally the best life.’
Ms Cunico was among the state’s 10,000 corrections staff to be recognised for their work on the annual National Corrections Day on January 15.
Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections Anthony Roberts said prison officers were unsung heroes of the community.
‘Our officers face a tough and sometimes dangerous job each day and their efforts mostly go unnoticed by the community, so National Corrections Day is an opportunity to recognise their valuable contribution,’ Mr Roberts said.