Turnkey is an old slang term for a warder, prison officer, or screw as they’re known in Australia. I could use the colloquial term but I don’t wish to offend. Porridge is an English term for doing time, then there’s a lagging, or a stretch, in other words locked away. As an officer you are locked up right alongside the prisoners for the duration of your shift. For those who have read my last Police blog you would be aware that I took this job as an alternative. The only medical requirements were if you could walk and breathe, at the same time. Educational standards were basic and after a four-week course they hired you. The turnover rate for officers ebbed and flowed, it was on a par with the fire brigade. Many an officer had a trade to fall back on and came into the service for a break. The pay rate was attractive and it seemed a better alternative than the dole.
Don’t expect to read grizzly tales about riots, slit throats and drug dealing officers in this series. You will however gain an insight into the justice system of the seventies, and there will be the odd fight, stabbing and escape. Part of the course entailed a day at Boggo Road Gaol. Built in 1883 it had a certain notoriety about it, 42 executions by hanging occurred over the years. After a guided tour I decided there and then that it wasn’t the place for me. A soulless, archaic edifice its only saving grace appeared to be the unlimited overtime. I take my hat off to the men who worked there. One of Queensland’s most notorious prisoners had a cell there, Andrew Stuart who along with James Finch firebombed the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane in 1973, killing 15 people. I remember him as being super-fit and I believe out of his tree. I stood and watched him in his exercise yard and like a caged animal he came and eyeballed me. Right up to the wire, spitting and swearing.
I chose to work at Wacol jail, a medium security facility/farm. A twenty-minute drive from home and no rush hour traffic seemed delightful. Don’t let the term medium security fool you, nobody wanted to be there, although if you were going to serve time it would be number one on your list. Nestled on a ridge overlooking a few hundred acres of bottom land and the Brisbane River, it had it all: a world-class dairy and artificial insemination facility, a superb piggery, market gardens, bakery and metal shop all designed with the rehabilitation of prisoners in mind. Some prisoners benefitted from learning new skills and they could be trade tested to take their experience into the workplace. There were of course those who would never benefit and made life difficult for everybody. The mid seventies were the halcyon days before the huge influx of heavy drugs into Australia. New markets had opened up with the ending of the war in Viet Nam and with the inroads of drugs into the community crime increased measurably.
We had all classifications of prisoners, from lifers to traffic fine defaulters. Guess who gave the most trouble? Fine defaulters, they were usually 17-25 years old who had failed to pay their speeding/drink driving fines. Anyone who was sentenced at that time went to Boggo Road first, served some of their sentence, were assessed and if found suitable sent to us. Lifers spent their first ten to twelve years in maximum security. Then if they were deemed to be ready came out to the holiday camp as they called it. Wacol had been designed on an English prison from I believe the 1950’s. The cells along with the kitchen, mess hall, recreation room and shift offices were all in an oblong compound. The two-storey cell blocks made up the walls on two sides and a bare wall at each end, about two stories high. One side of the compound, separated by the offices, medic station and small outdoor cinema housed the prisoners who worked inside the secure area of the jail. The other side housed the trusted and outside workers.
The job suited me in as much as it provided a disciplined, uniformed environment not unlike the army. There were a high percentage of officers who had served at some time in various armies around the world. Some had migrated especially to work there and were housed in the migrant hostel next door. Too close for me old son. I settled in and found myself a new career, although it wasn’t to be quiet for too long. The majority of younger prisoners didn’t understand the basics of discipline and doing as they were told. Most were from ‘don’t give a shit’ backgrounds and acted accordingly. One of them, let’s call him Nigel, decided to see how far I would go when baited. You could only strike a prisoner in self-defence and at this stage I classed myself as an easy-going bloke. He pushed me in the chest and I used my greatest weapon, a pen and notebook, wrote him up and charged him with assault. The silly lad found himself out back in the cages. The visiting magistrate heard the case and it resulted in another week being added to his sentence.
‘I can do this standing on my head,’ bragged Nigel. He didn’t realise the intricacies of prison sentencing. I might bore you all for a moment here and explain something. There used to be a system in place whereby after sentencing by the courts, your time served could be reduced only if you behaved. If I remember rightly a first offence could be reduced by a quarter, second by a fifth and a third offence got nothing. Recidivists or repeat offenders were by far the most unruly, they had nothing to lose. Nigel worked outside so had a few more days knocked off his sentence, he had originally been sentenced to six months and this brought his release date to early January. Because there were no releases between Christmas Day and the end of the first week of January anyone in that time period were released on Christmas Eve. Poor Nigel, when he found out from the Chief that he would be getting his pudding in jail and not at home he became quite sullen.
We lived on a main road in an Ipswich suburb, the traffic ebbed and flowed but not many cars stopped outside our house. An old high-set Queenslander it had 13 steps leading to the front door and it overlooked a chest high privet hedge. I kept a rifle, a Winchester 30/30 with a full magazine behind my bedroom door and a large hunting knife under my pillow. It upset the wife somewhat but I needed the sense of comfort that it brought to me. This wasn’t as a result of working at the jail, it had been my life since coming home from Viet Nam. We didn’t have a home phone, the nearest a public phone stood across the road. I had gone to bed early this night, having a six o’clock start the next morning. The sound of a vehicle braking outside and my name being called woke me.
I didn’t like the tone of voice, ‘We’re going to kill ya, ya bastard. Rape your wife and stomp on ya kid.’ Bounding out of bed I rushed to the window, a utility with three men in the front and about four in the tray stood out on the road. The threats continued, I grabbed my rifle and wearing nothing but my undies opened the front door. A street light shone on the front of our house and they didn’t miss me: overweight, angry, undies straining and standing on the top step with a rifle in hand. One man stayed behind the wheel while the others armed with knives and bats clambered over the hedge and through the front gate. They all came to a sliding halt when I loaded a round into the chamber. It’s a distinctive sound, a loud rack-rack.
Their spokesman Wally, an ex-inmate and friend of the unlucky Nigel started, ‘You bastard you’ve ruined me mate’s Christmas, he’s lost a job (yeah right) and his girlfriend, blah, blah, blah.’ It went on, the others thought they had me scared and began moving forward. I raised the rifle to chest height and pointed it at Wally, ‘The first one of you mongrels who puts a foot on the bottom step will die, starting with you.’ There seemed to be some indecision and doubt about the bonds of mateship and how far they can be stretched. A few backed off and Wally looked around, he’d lost his support base. I must admit he left with some pride, not like his mates who ran to their vehicle hurling abuse. He backed off; they climbed into the Ute and left in a screech of tyres. I know that if they had put a foot wrong Wally would’ve died that night and about one other. The threats were heard clearly by the neighbours and I’m of the firm belief that I would not have been charged. The following day I had a chat with Nigel (only talking) and he saw the error of his ways. His mates never came back and the little darling did as he was told. I hate bullies and those who threaten women and children. In the following five years I met a few of them. Only one other ex-inmate paid my home a visit after that but that story is to come.
Yes, that’s me all dressed up and ready for work with my trusty whistle. Oh and I do have all my fingers, I just don’t know what to do with my hands in photos.