A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS, part 1 or ‘Doing Porridge’ in the 70’s.

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.
My beautiful picture

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16 thoughts on “A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS, part 1 or ‘Doing Porridge’ in the 70’s.

  1. Pingback: Laurie Smith (a/k/a L.W. Smith) is my Guest Author and Blogger today: Medium, Healer, Ex Army, Prison, Police and Defence Security – a fascinating Crime writer and Blogger | Jane Risdon

    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      You’re welcome Jane, I think the vast majority of officers at the time were ex-military. They tend to gravitate to uniform jobs. It makes for a better workplace if you have a common bond.

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  2. Pingback: YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW. A brief interlude. | laurie27wsmith

  3. Robert

    G’day Laurie I can’t remember you from Wacol but I was one of those fine defaulters you mentioned in this story, I was only in Wacol for 6 weeks and that was back in August-September 74 I worked in the dairy most of the time but asked for and got a transfer to the piggery because I was going to belt one of those smart arses you mentioned, the screw in the dairy saw what was happening but just stood there and said you can belt him if you want but you’ll do 3 days in the cages and lose your remission, I didn’t think it was worth it so got the transfer to avoid the temptation, There’s only 3 screws I can remember from those days but can’t remember their names, one from the dairy was a big solid bloke and I think he had a German name, the one from the piggery was a slim bloke about 6′ 1″ and the other was a 3 pipper who had to wear a wig to cover his long hair at work and he also rode a motor bike, I thought he wasn’t a bad bloke, the last thing that was said to me when I got out from Wacol was we’ll see you again because once you’ve been in here you always come back and he was right, but it took 39 years, I live in Vic these days but go to QLD to visit my son & grandson each year and last year decided to go and have a look at the joint I couldn’t get into the main part of the jail but went for a walk around the dairy and piggery but it had changed that much it was hard to recognise, the piggery’s just about gone and I couldn’t see any silage pits where I spent a bit of time also around the back where the soccer ground is looks like a Lantana plantation, I took some photo’s around the place and would have liked to have got a shot of my old slot but the screw in the office’s across the road reckons he didn’t have the key, I look back on that time and my 10 days in Boggo Rd where I worked in the laundry as one of life’s experiences and in fact when I got out and picked up my pay for working 14.5 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 6 weeks which was $5.10 I said to some mates if they paid decent wages for the hours worked I’d go back and do another couple of months so I could save some money.
    PS. When I was in Boggo Rd Stuart and Finch were in C-Wing I couldn’t see Stuart who was right up the end of the wing but I used to see Finch walking around his exercise yard for about 2 hours each day with a metal bucket of water in each hand, like I said I was in for not paying a fine so didn’t have to work but asked to in Boggo Rd because the time went to slow even after I’d learned what yippee’s were (you can’t read all day) the laundry was an eye opener I worked on the press that did the hospital sheets pillow cases etc, etc, there was 2 blokes either side of the press 2 to feed them in and 2 to take them out and fold them, we were talking one day and as the new bloke I was asked what I was in for so told them fine default and asked what they were in for the replies although not completely unexpected were a bit of a surprise, the guy on my side was in for murder and the guys on the other side were in for one murder, and the other armed robbery, I did feel like the odd man out a bit.
    As strange as it might seem I felt sorry for the guy who was on my side of the press after he told me why he killed the bloke he was in for, he said he was an acquaintance of the family and had molested his daughter he said he told him if he went near her again he’d kill him and the bloke molested her again, he said he got caught getting rid of the body I don’t know what happened to him as his case was going before the Privy Council but I felt sorry for him because I reckon I’d feel like doing the same thing if someone molested one of my kids.
    Geez I just had a look at how much I’ve written and can’t believe I’ve written this much about something that happened 40 years ago and I rarely mention, the main reason I started writing was to see if you can recall the name of the 3 pipper with the long hair and wig who rode the motor bike.
    All the best, Yours Robert.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Robert, It’s good to hear from you. The bloke with the German name was one of three brothers who worked there. I would remember them if I bumped into them now. Stocky build with heads that were sunk deep into thick shoulders and all avid pistol shooters. The three pipper, if I recall looked as if e were Italian I think he had a name ending in INA, or INI. I only ever went to the farm area for dropping off or picking up bods. Even blokes I worked with I now have trouble remembering their names, faces are vivid as anything. One doesn’t do a lagging for fine defaulting now, which is a good thing. The last place to be as you know, is inside. Whenever I drive past the place, (go to more funerals than birthdays now) I always shake my head and think what a waste. It was in fact based on an English concept in the 60’s of what a modern prison should be, with it’s vision of work and production of something useful. They grew all the veges for every hospital and institution in SE Qld, supplied them with milk and bread, provided laundry services etc. As you pointed out it’s a dump now. I think they’re letting it run right down so it can be safely demolished with not a peep from the taxpayer. I know the vast majority of those stuck in there may not have thought it but it was better than being stuck in a cage in Boggo Road. You would have known you were alive working laundry duty in Boggo road, a lot of tough blokes in there indeed. There’s murder and there’s a sense of justice, the aggrieved father certainly warned the molester.
      Thanks for dropping by, reading and leaving a message Robert, sometimes it’s good to stroll down memory lane. Except when it’s covered in lantana. 🙂
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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  4. Raani York

    This is the promising start of another one of your excellent “Professional Officer’s series”. And I love it right away Laurie!!
    I’m happy for your explanations of words and processes. And I do admire you as not only a writer, but as a strong character and personality more and more!!
    Keep them coming!! 🙂

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  5. kelihasablog

    Oh I hate bullies too…. I’m glad you really gave them reason to have second thoughts! 😀 Very good… I’m glad you explained the words… I never would have figured them out… LOL

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