In my last post I mentioned that jail is a microcosm of society, with its variety of social and ethnic inhabitants. Once inside they become members of a wolf pack and the ensuing hierarchy that is involved. Anybody who has worked long enough in a jail will realise that ‘the inmates run the asylum.’ Sure the guards keep them there – most of the time – and enforce the rules but the pulse of the place throbs along to the beat of the pack.
In the medium security jail where I worked there was no segregation by crime or age, only by length of time to serve and flight risk. The hierarchy went like this: the hardest toughest bloke, his cronies, the others, then child molesters/child killers. This wasn’t overt, it isn’t like you see in the movies with the main man, his enforcers and weak-kneed guards doing their bidding. The stand over tactics happened in the workplace or out on the farm. It usually involved bashing other inmates to have their visitors bring in drugs, or arrange for money to be put in their accounts. In my day tobacco was the main form of currency. You could bribe prisoners with a couple of tailor-made cigarettes to give information. Some inmates would exchange sexual favours, with other prisoners for a packet of White Ox tobacco. The night before the Melbourne Cup horse race, we found out who the prisoner was holding the book for the race betting. I located the stash of over a hundred packets of tobacco in a false wall in his workplace. His career as bookmaker ended very suddenly.
Drugs hadn’t made the inroads into jails that they have today, with the attendant graft and corruption. Tobacco was harmless but at the end of the day it was still a currency that could be used for illicit dealings. Prisoners took every chance they could to try to con you into bringing things in for them. Unfortunately some officers fell prey and carried out a letter or two, or even worse brought in alcohol. Not that the prisoners needed it, there was always a ‘brew’ on the go somewhere. The kitchen, bakery or farm areas were always under suspicion. All they needed were a couple of spoons of yeast, tinned fruit, peelings, sugar and something to brew it in and they were off. Some would try to brew it in coffee tins of all things. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing and when you have people confined with plenty of time to think, you have trouble. These brews were quite potent, you would find some when they blew the container up from the pressure of fermentation. High percentage alcohol drunk by people who hadn’t had a drop for a while spelled trouble. I digress, let’s get on to:
THE HEAVIES. You find them everywhere in life, bully’s and stand over men, they are usually bigger and stronger and prey on the weak. Prisoners who were bashed didn’t report it and it was obvious what had happened, you had a good idea who did it but they kept their mouths shut. Nobody wanted to be known as a Dog, or a Rat, a Grass whatever word takes your fancy. There was one man in particular, we’ll call him Norman. He resembled a Canadian wrestler of the day called John ‘Skull’ Murphy. Murphy was a much nicer human being. Norman, in his forties soon had a retinue of young cronies. You would see them in the recreation room sitting around his table, hanging on his every word. He reminded me of an undertaker, whenever he looked you in the eye it seemed like he was measuring you up. An ingratiating fellow, the old saying of running with the fox and the hounds comes to mind. He would give people up for small wrongdoings and try to weasel his way into your confidence. It was actually quite comical to watch him at work trying to con the new officers. He’d saunter up to them, looking left and right, stop and cock his head to one side. Sidling up a little closer he’d tap the side of his nose with a stubby forefinger and talk out of the corner of his mouth, “Listen Boss, I’ve heard about blah blah blah, you know for a couple of fags I can give you much more on so and so.” You get the drift, a consummate con man he had his fingers in everything but never seemed to get caught. The man was rumoured to be a member of the infamous Sydney Toe Cutter gang, I think the rumour may have been started by him.
This brings me to my argument against putting professional criminals and repeat offenders in the same areas as fine defaulters and first offenders. Enter the hapless victim, Ronald a serviceman serving three months for drunk driving, with two weeks left to serve on his sentence. Stage left the equally hapless and besotted with Norman, a young traffic fine defaulter, 18-year-old Martin. He followed Norman around like a small puppy and hung on his every word, doing his bidding, giving him the coffee he bought with his earnings. I couldn’t say if Norman had a sexual hold over his minions but it would have been strange if he didn’t. Sexual favours being a common currency inside. In their downtime, Norm and his little gang sat by the dart board in the recreation room. He held court and had little conferences at his table, aping a Mafia Don.
I came on shift at 2pm one day to find the prison locked down and the recreation room taped off. The Chief came out of his office and said, “Ahh, Mister Smith, just the man I’ve been waiting for. Search the rec room you’re looking for a knife, the police couldn’t find it.”
The story went like this: the prisoners came down from lunch in the mess and were allowed to sit in the rec room. Ronald apparently didn’t want to hand his coffee or tobacco over to Norman, who being the ‘Don’ didn’t want to let some young punk refuse him. He called Martin over and told him that Ronald had intimated to him that after seeing Martin’s mum on visits she would be a good root and would more than likely indulge in a little anal sex. He then handed a sharpened dinner knife to Martin, who waited until Ronald went to the toilets, followed him in and stabbed him in the right kidney. Not content with stabbing he twisted it a little bit. He returned to Norman and gave him the knife, who then hid it. Ronald walked a little unsteadily out of the toilets and up to the compound officer with blood pumping out of his back.
Here’s the kicker, Norman dogged on Martin, giving him up to the police. There certainly isn’t any honour amongst thieves. Norman didn’t count on the knife being found, enter Mr Smith. I’m going to blow my own trumpet here, I have a good eye for finding things and when it came to drugs, something of a nose. The secret is to think like your quarry, where would I hide that, where is the most obvious, accessible hiding place in the rec room? Easy, the dart board, it was where Norman spent all of his time. The board was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet, which was screwed to the wall, dividing the rec room from the rec room on the other side of the compound. Getting down on the floor I sat under the cabinet and looked up, there it was a glimmer of stainless steel. The only trouble it had been jammed right up. Next stop, workshops and I returned with a screwdriver. I finally removed the cabinet and retrieved the knife. An ordinary piece of cutlery honed to a point on someone’s cell floor and now caked with blood.
We didn’t have rubber gloves, so I fetched a piece of gladwrap from the kitchen and picked the knife out from the wall with it. Of course it turned out that it only had Martin’s prints on the haft, Ronald was many things, stupid wasn’t one of them. Martin was charged with attempted murder and received a 10 year sentence. He went on to murder another two inmates over time, severing the head of one of them and is still inside, classed as a violent offender, a classic example of jail making a criminal out of a person. Martin may have been something of a lout on the outside and probably found himself in a few scrapes but nothing like murder. However he went on and committed the crime, free will once again but would he have done it if he hadn’t been under the spell of Norman?
Norman didn’t get away scot-free in the end. After his release from jail he returned to New South Wales. Police found his body in a motel room in Newcastle, he had certainly upset somebody. He had been severely bashed then had several .38 rounds pumped into him. I don’t know if his killer was caught but I’m sure Martin wouldn’t have grieved over him. Ronald came out of it okay, he spent a couple of weeks in hospital one kidney down but alive. As one wag commented, “He’s the only bloke I know who was really dying for a piss.” He certainly learned his lesson and never graced our steel gates again.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HEAVY. Jack Edward Wilson was worlds apart from Norman, he was an old school crim and armed robber. They didn’t come much tougher. With an accomplice he held up the Beerburrum mail van in April 1976 and stole nearly half a million dollars. He was arrested in a Kings Cross hotel in the May and he was extradited to Queensland. The man hardly said a word, he was a dark visaged, brooding type of bloke who kept to himself, he reminded me of a rougher Clint Eastwood to look at. He had a 35 year criminal history and was an armed robber by profession. $320,000 was never recovered from the mail van robbery and when he was released he was extradited to face charges in Victoria. In 1986 his body was found in a car near Wagga Wagga. The man convicted of his shooting murder had $320,000 in his possession he couldn’t account for.
With Wilson you knew where you stood, he didn’t like anybody. It was common knowledge that the money still hadn’t been recovered and he would have been something of a marked man inside. Once again it highlights the choices people make with their lives, many criminals would have been great company directors or CEO’s. The amount of planning, preparation and persistence they put into the pursuit of their chosen lifestyle, channelled into business would have probably made for a more financially rewarding life. As one crim said to me, “Boss, I do it because I love the thrill.” I guess you can’t argue with that.