This post may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it is a large part of jail life, everyone has to eat, staff included. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about the mess and kitchen, staffed by prisoners and overseen by Officers, known as Trade Instructors. Prisoners were able to become accredited for some aspects of cooking and believe me many of them were excellent. Like their counterparts in restaurants and institutions they were proud of their work. Not so some of the kitchen hands and stewards. An officer can’t be everywhere at once and the security officer was always busy keeping an eye on what the staff were up to. I didn’t mind the occasional shift in the kitchen, one always managed to have a nice cut of steak for their meal. Counting 250 sets of cutlery a shift became a little irksome though. Then you had to search the kitchen workers as they finished their shift in case they were taking knives or rations out with them. It’s surprising where items can be secreted.
Doing my rounds one day I came across a kitchen hand with his arm stuck in a huge pot of warm rice pudding, plunging it slowly up and down right up to his hairy armpit. Me, “What are you doing?” Him, “Getting off Boss, this is better than sex.” Needless to say his erotic rice pudding fantasy came to an abrupt end. One of the officer’s tasks was to check meals being sent out to prisoners locked in detention. They were served up on a plate by one of the cooks, a stainless steel lid placed over it then a steward would deliver it under the watchful eye of an officer. I checked a lunch going out to a prisoner on protection (he had Dogged on another prisoner) the steward looked a little nervous as I lifted the lid. A lovely sweet and sour chicken on a bed of fluffy white rice, with a large side order of fresh faeces. The steward had nipped into the large walk-in fridge to deposit his message to the errant prisoner. I used this event in my book ‘Mountain of Death’ where our hero receives a similar message in his porridge, not for being a dog but as payback for a beating he dishes out.
In the officer’s mess an abundance of stainless steel teapots, milk jugs and such had to be cleaned and the quickest way was to use dairy chloride bleach. Used extensively in the prison dairy it cleaned cutlery and crockery beautifully. Jails are a hot bed of germs, it doesn’t take much for a dose of gastroenteritis or similar to do the rounds so the use of the chloride was encouraged. A stewards job involved taking officer’s morning and afternoon teas around and the cleaning of the pots and such. I waited patiently for my morning tea on this particular day, it was late and I wasn’t happy. The steward (who later escaped) hurried across from the mess to where I stood in my guard box, a basic structure with a table and a chair you couldn’t sit on. Huffing and puffing he plonked my teapot down and I poured my long-awaited cup of tea. Being thirsty I guzzled the first cup down, not tasting the chloride in it. I poured another cup and it hit me. We all know the effects of Drano and other blocked sink cleaners. A churning gurgling sensation followed by a need for the blocked U bend to disgorge its contents. That dear readers was my stomach and bowel. The burning in my gullet from the chloride paled into insignificance when I felt what was happening inside.
A phone hung on the wall, a direct line to the senior’s office, Me, “I need a relief now!” Senior, “You’ll have to wait, we’re having our tea break.” Me, “Can’t wait!” Running towards the mess undoing my belt I yelled out to the gate guard and was met by another officer, he took over and I barreled into the toilets. Ten minutes later I staggered out, a haggard, wan shadow of my former self. I found the steward hiding in the kitchen behind the huge cook, Him, “I, we, him – they put it in there, I thought the pots were ready.” Not being in the mood for excuses and wondering about the after effects of being poisoned with chloride I grabbed his shirt front. Calmer heads prevailed and a couple of officers separated us. It appeared that another steward had half filled the teapots with dairy chloride, left them for a while and rinsed them all out except one, mine – hmm? They were all filled up with hot water and tea bags dropped in, then sent out to the posts. I thought it all quite suspicious.
The main gate was looked upon as a good place to spend a shift, you worked it on your own and were responsible for all pedestrian and vehicular transport, in and out. You also had a gate sweeper to supervise, a trusty who was responsible for cleaning inside and the immediate area outside the gate. You had your own office, a glass and steel affair that allowed you to keep an eye out on the perimeter as well as inside the gate complex. Except for the inside visitor’s waiting room, where the sweeper had his sink and cleaning gear. In the gate office you had an electric kettle so you could make a cuppa anytime you wanted. A selection of tea bags and a tin of coffee from the mess was kept in the cupboard. If your sweeper did the right thing and didn’t have to be pushed to work you would let him sneak a cuppa next to his sink. They had an old tea mug there and were usually quite appreciative of the gesture. I had a new sweeper, I informed him of his duties and he seemed quite okay with what he had to do. He came in and cleaned my office and asked if he could take the kettle to give it a rinse out. Things had become busy and I let him take it, when I returned to my office the kettle sat there all sparkly clean and full of water. I boiled it up and made a cuppa, a strong coffee for a change and noticed a strange taste. Business picked up and I went about my duties. I told the sweeper to rinse the kettle out again and he returned to his sink.
After about ten minutes he still hadn’t returned, I went to the waiting room entrance and stood at the door. The sweeper, down on his hands and knees under a bench didn’t notice me, so I watched him. He scampered along and began grabbing at something on the floor, he stopped and gave a satisfied grunt stood up and went to the kettle. Lifting the lid he dropped something inside, he didn’t see me coming up behind him and I grabbed the kettle. Lifting the lid I looked inside, a seething mass of cockroaches covered the waterlogged ones on the bottom for about an eighth of the way up. We had words, extremely long words in which I informed him that I was going to hurt him, even giving him permission to fight back. After which I sent him and the kettle back to the senior under escort. I never ate another meal in that jail, except for a serve of plum pudding and custard on Sundays, which I served myself. Every time I see a cockroach that scene comes bounding back – yuck!
MR T. Prisons are full of characters, inmates and officers who leave a lasting impression you, one of them was a Chief Officer who I’ll call Mr T. Imagine a man about six-foot-five, built like a power lifter and looking like a huge teddy bear. Apparently his body was covered in a thick pelt of hair, he had to shave from the base of his throat and right over his head and the backs of his hands. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt and the hair stuck out from the cuffs in huge tufts. When he spoke, which was slowly it came out in a deep baritone, in the years that I knew him I only heard him raise his voice once. The prisoner on the receiving end of his anger burst into tears. When seniors or above came into the jail, as a gate officer you would stand to attention, salute and state the number of prisoners in at the time. Mr T would come in and return the salute, humph and harrumph and say, “Ahh, hmm, are you sure Mister Smith, nobody ahh, slipping over the walls today?” His eyes would twinkle a little and he always looked as if he were about to share a joke with you and would then back off. I always enjoyed his company, on night shifts he would loosen up a little and talk about jail and prisoners he knew back in his early days.
Mr T was as strong as an Ox and after some coaxing would perform his party trick, lifting up the office safe, turning around and putting it on another desk. This safe had to be placed there by four men with a trolley. The prisoners respected him and it was only the newbies who back chatted him. Which brings me to a story that highlights the respect he was held in. The dairy officer came in at 4.30 a.m. and picked up half a dozen of his workers and took them down to begin feeding the cows. Ten minutes later we received a call from him, he’d been assaulted by one of the prisoners. The senior sent myself and another officer down to attend the incident. We found him slumped at the desk in his office, semi conscious holding his face. I sat him up and moved his hand away, the left side of his face looked different, his cheekbone had been shattered and his nose broken. The culprit was an Aboriginal prisoner in for assault who also happened to be a Golden Gloves boxer, a light heavyweight. He didn’t like the job he had been given, cleaning out the silos which held the cattle fodder. Yes an onerous job but he wanted an easier milking job and when he didn’t get his way thumped his Boss.
Imagine yourself in a complex of wooden buildings, cattle sheds, small undercover feedlots, and sprawling concrete aprons where the cattle mooch around waiting to go in and feed. It’s dark, a little unfamiliar, hot, fresh cow patties litter the ground and there’s a man hiding – waiting for you to come and get him. We found him hiding behind one of the silage pits, the concrete edge sticks out of the ground about waist-high. He leapt out at us with a long-handled shovel. Stripped to the waist, muscles rippling he waved that shovel like some berserker. All we were armed with were our whistles, fat lot of good they were going to do when Conan the Dairyman decided to make his move. Sometimes you get an insight into a situation, I stood at one side of the pit, say three o’clock, my mate at the other, nine o’clock and our upset friend at the twelve o’clock position. It occurred to me that this man was frightened, of us. He had the shovel, boxing experience and as fit as any man I’d seen and there he stood, crying. Him, “Keep away, I won’t come with you. You’ll beat me up and throw me in the pound.” Me, thinking, That might be the other way around matey. Him, “I want Mr T down here, I’ll go with him, he won’t hurt me.”
I sent my mate off to the office to ring the senior and engaged my weepy friend in some desultory conversation, Me, “Why won’t you walk back up with me, I won’t hurt you?” Him, “I’ve heard about you, you’ll fight.” Ooh, I have a reputation. Mr T at this stage had been promoted to Deputy Superintendent and was on call, so he resided in one of the houses on site. An agonizingly long ten minutes later Mr T drove his car through the yard and up to the pit. Him, “Hmm, who have you upset now Mister Smith? Never mind I’ll sort it.” He walks straight up to him and holds his hand out, the prisoner gives him the shovel and shoulders slumped he staggers to the car and climbs in the front seat, still crying. Mr T wanders over to me, “What did you do to the poor lad Mister Smith?” Eyes twinkling, something resembling a grin crosses his face. Me, “Nothing, I didn’t do a thing.” I can still hear his rumbling laugh.
Kevin the Dairy officer didn’t come back to work for a year, when he did he wasn’t the same happy-go-lucky type. Mister Weepy was charged with assault occasioning bodily harm and received two years extra on his sentence and a transfer back to Boggo Road Gaol. I left the following year and joined the police. I never saw Mr T again and regret not keeping in touch, I heard he died several years ago. Some people have an impact on your life and your thoughts, he was one of them. A single man, he lived with his aged mother, some people thought it odd. Nature had made him stand out from the crowd, some officers mocked him – behind his back – they didn’t have the guts to do it to his face. I think he knew this, yet he held himself with a certain quiet dignity. R I P MR T, it was a privilege to have known you.