A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS, part 20. That’s not how you cook a gas bottle and The Snack machine.

That’s not how you cook a gas bottle. Prison kitchens can be dangerous places at the best of times, well any kitchen can but your average household or restaurant isn’t full of men who don’t want to be there let alone work. The cook house was situated about six long steps from our office door, this made a quick dash for morning tea or to collect your meal very convenient. When it became the sight of a prisoner’s attempt to blow the place up, then six hundred steps weren’t enough. In the months leading up to the wasp sting I had contended with a fire in the small laundry ( on my own ) when a prisoner took hot, wet clothes out of the drier and left them in a basket. Naturally spontaneous combustion took over and I found that a heap of wet undies can make a neat fire. It was a Sunday night, the camp had 160 prisoners in and could I get one of them to assist? No way, very frustrating. I had my radio and help was one prison away, it couldn’t do anything for my basket of burning clothes. Getting in to put the fire out was the hardest part, the laundry boy had his key and had let the idiot in to wash his clothes and locked it up again ( it prevented the theft of clothing, come on it is a jail ). I only carried the gate keys so it was a mad dash to the office, grab said key, hurtle back unlock, kick the basket out and use the extinguisher on it. The smell of burning jockey shorts attracted a small crowd and I received a round of applause for my fire fighting skills. The owner of the clothing was a bit miffed though. Where is this leading? Mobile phones. It is illegal to have a mobile phone in a jail. However management who worked in the compound carried them all the time. We couldn’t have one for work purposes, the rationale was we were just Supervisors who would let the prisoners have them, etc, etc, you get the drift. The prisoners had a public phone for their own use in the compound and it ran off phone cards. Having a mobile would have enabled me to raise the fire brigade if necessary or the day shift who were sleeping on site at the time.

It brings us back to the kitchen, a typical institution affair where every utensil is larger than life, big ovens, warmers, cook tops, serveries. For breakfast the cook would bring out a small portable grill plate, it was used to fry eggs on. It came with a 9 kilo gas bottle attached by a long hose. This way the bottle could be kept at a safe distance from the flame. It’s not rocket science, anyone can use a BBQ. On this day I was the Boss Cocky (in charge) and had two other supervisors from out west working under me. A fine day if I remember rightly and we had finished our morning tea and scones. My lads had been whisked away by the Intel officer to search a prisoner who she suspected of carrying diamonds, ( they actually found one ) so they were all up in the interview room near the main admin office. There were two ways to the front fence, the roadway between my office and the kitchen led to the main gate. And a pathway between the accommodation huts led to a small pedestrian gate near the main gate. Both of my men had keys for these.

Brushing away the last crumbs of a pumpkin scone off my shirt I sat back and pondered the days activities. My job entailed a fair amount of minor prisoner admin and reports, occurrence books, security, the list goes on. Oh yes and thinking about it. We’ll call the cook Dante, after the inferno. He appeared at my door with a surprising turn of speed for 1: A prisoner and 2. A man of his age, “Boss, Boss you’ve got to come quick, bottle, gas, cooking hurry.” If any of my readers remember one of Bob Hope’s movies, ‘The Ghost Breakers’ where Willie Best, a Negro actor played a butler, well this man resembled him, except for the colour. In the movie he ran from the mansion and overtook the horse and carriage driven by Hope and said as he passed, “stand aside horse and let a man who can run, get past.” Eyes bulging fit to burst, arms waving madly Dante looked like a Pelican choking on a Chihuahua. Grabbing my radio I followed him over to the kitchen. The prisoners who staffed it were racing out of the mess hall door at the other end as if Old Nick himself were after them. When I saw what they were running from I wanted to join them. I had seen the videos at the Police Academy with our fire training about BLEVE’s  ( an acronym for “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.” ) My jam laden scone bubbled up to the back of my throat and sat for a moment before sliding back down, “Oh,” said I, “Dante old son, piss off out of here now.”

The portable grill sat on its little table with the gas bottle on the hot plate, flames on full and vapour hissing out of the vent on the bottle. You know those moments when the feeling is, this is going to go bang, or bite me, or run me over. Well it was one of those feelings. I could only do one thing and that was turn the flame off at the front of the plate. The gas bottle had a glow about it and no way could I grab it, the blasted thing was white-hot. Flame out I showed a clean pair of heels and hoofed it to my office, talking on the radio as I went. My men dragged the prisoner they were searching up to the assembly point, still pulling his trousers up. Intel lady raced to the office and alerted the deputy manager and I rang the fire brigade. Now there are always instructions and rules to evacuations and we had them. What we didn’t have were instructions for an officer on his own with only a landline and a tannoy system to evacuate 90 prisoners and a dozen office staff.

The deputy evacuated the civilians and took them away across the road. Good, that left the prisoners. Now the kitchen staff had fled to the far fence, still too close so standing in my office ( a place I didn’t want to be ) I gave instructions over the tannoy. Something to the effect, “Urgent, I repeat urgent this is not an exercise, everybody get out of your rooms and move up to the front fence via the path along the far fence.” 99% of them heard, “ooh, waah ,ooh waa waa fence.” Bloody hell, so I called up one of the prisoners, an older bloke who had some sense. He came to the centre of the little sports field and I gave instructions to round-up some others and get them doing a door to door. I could still smell gas vapour, the fire brigade hadn’t turned up and there were still lollygaggers wandering around. ( NW stands for naughty word. ) Back on the tannoy, “For NW’s sake, move your lazy NWing arses and NWing get them up to the front fence.”

A quick check up the road and I could finally see them being let out by my blokes. Phew. One prisoner stayed behind, he was at level one hundred gazillion something or other on his X-Box and didn’t want to leave it behind. The fire brigade turned up, God bless ’em and one of them went in dressed up with all the gear on, brought the bottle out then proceeded to hose it down. Didn’t it hiss from the heat. Then came the debrief. The deputy manager seemed very happy with my handling of the proceedings, as we know he evacuated the civilian staff. My blokes did their job and using the master roll accounted for all but one prisoner. ( X-Box man ) The manager when he returned to the camp had a different outlook, it went something like this: you should have called the roll and paraded the prisoners on the sports field, ( in front of the kitchen, yeah right ) you should have brought your men back down to assist you, ( right, bring them past the area where the blast would come from ) you should have reported to the main office and accounted for the staff there, ( hmm, deputy manager had that covered ) you shouldn’t have stayed in the office, you could have coordinated from somewhere else, ( hmm, the telephone cord is only three metres long and the tannoy cord is a metre ). I couldn’t win. Then the fireman had a go at me, “You should have moved somewhere safe.” I would have loved to but who coordinates then? So I brought up the subject of a mobile phone, “If I had one of them I would’ve coordinated it from a place that didn’t put me in danger.” “Oh no,” says the manager, “mobile phones are illegal in jail.” Prick.

To say it pissed me off was an understatement, I’d been next to large explosions in Viet Nam and well knew the effects of a blast. Inside something died a little, high on adrenalin I didn’t take much notice. What I did do is catch the bastard who set it up. Ignoring the brickbats from  my boss, the intel officer and I began our investigation. The police had been notified, they turned up,  deemed it a non-event and left, After some cracking interviews and a room search we found a letter one of the kitchen hands had written and left in his cell, declaring that someone in the kitchen had dogged on him and that they’d pay. After we’d done all the leg work and gathered the evidence then the local coppers came back and took him away. What thanks did we get? Nothing.

The Snack machine. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts the prisoners were allowed to carry money, they had a social club of sorts and a snack machine graced the veranda of the mess hall. It stood like a beacon to the hungry, especially the weed heads who would get a little peckish in the wee hours. Actually there were two machines, one for drinks, the other for chockie bars and chips. We were forever pestered for change, there was a set time after the knock off muster to get change but no,  “Aw, c’mon Boss you must have some coin on you.” They also had a small kiosk run by one of the civilian office workers that opened on Friday afternoons. There they could buy items via their accounts and by 5pm the place looked like a Willy Wonka outlet.

Many a night when they were supposed to be in their rooms you would catch a glimpse of some dark shape on the veranda, a clink, clink, clink of change in a slot then, clang. “Oi, get off the bloody veranda and back to bed.” “Sorry Boss, I’m hungry.” It was usually the ones that had eaten about 10,000 calories for tea. They really thought we were stupid you know, especially on the night of the ‘big raid.’ They must have been waiting for me to start my rounds, this night I began them at the front entrance and worked back down the far side. So you can imagine my surprise when I found Mars Bars and Smiths Chips packets along the pathway, all leading to one room. A flash of the torch up the path highlighted a trail of packaging leading back to the snack machine. A quick trip to the machine and there it sat, the door jemmied open, change scattered on the floor and half eaten chocolates. I woke the day shift supervisor and we sneaked up to the offender’s room. He ripped the door open and I shone the torch in. There they sat with their chocolate smeared hands and faces dividing up the change from the machine between them by candle light. We locked them in the secure cell for the night. The feeling was that they may have been planning their escape and had stolen over $150 from the machine. Obviously the huge intake of calories was needed to give them an edge while on the run. 🙂

The system went out of their way to make sure those of different religions received their correct diet, despite the cost and inconvenience. Two prisoners, Lebanese  drug dealers graced us with their presence for a few months and what a pair or rat bags they were. Work was a four letter word and the world could kiss their bums. It seemed after being there for a week or two they decided that they needed Halal meat in their diet. An Imam came to visit on weekends. Then came Ramadan, they couldn’t eat between the hours of sunrise and sunset, so a cook had to be rostered on for them to eat in the evening. Didn’t he bitch and moan as he cooked their meat in bacon fat – true – they didn’t know it though.

It may be hard to believe but after working in jail for a while you do know every name and face. Where they should be and what they should be doing. Our devout followers of Mohammed were hanging around the snack machine, in the daylight when usually they were praying on the oval. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what they were up to. I sauntered over to their room after lunch. The camp always had the feel of a retirement home at that time of day. Warm sunshine, the buzz of bees around the little flower gardens by the huts, the gentle snores of the inhabitants ruminating on life and their place in it. Opening the door I called out, “Surprise, oh did I disturb your lunch?” There they sat chomping away on big sandwiches, slurping from 2 litre bottles of milk, and their faces slowly sliding into despair as the realisation hit, the party was over. Needless to say the cook was happy, the Halal meat supply stopped and our lads went back to good old prison tucker.

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18 thoughts on “A TURNKEY’S TRIBULATIONS, part 20. That’s not how you cook a gas bottle and The Snack machine.

  1. Raani York

    Dear Laurie,
    This was just GREAT to read!! I caught myself hanging across the table of my computer desk with open mouth and sometimes laughing and giggling.
    I just love the way you write, your vivid descriptions, the humor in it – and the details!! They all together paint a picture of words which develops in my mind. I can’t imagine anything better!!!!

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  2. Jane Risdon

    Laurie, I am in the wrong part of your blog, but I did visit the site you suggested and read your interview and could relate to so much of it – as you know we interviewed so many for our TV show and lots of what you spoke of, we discovered too. Could chat for hours about it all but time is always an issue. Thanks for the link. We shall chat again soon I have no doubt. J

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Jane thanks for checking out the link, yes psychic’s stories all seem to share a common thread. It was nice of you to take the time and I am sure we’ll talk again,
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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      1. Jane Risdon

        I came back to read the rest of your post above and to thank your for such an entertaining read Laurie, laughed a lot and it brightened my day no end. Thanks 🙂

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  3. liz blackmore

    Hello Laurie.When these posts come to my mailbox, i have to control my urge to rush to it and read. I read and then re-read your stories, so I like to have down time to do this. Today I was finally able to catch up on your blog. I read your tales of days gone by to Randy, too ,, as he enjoys them. I am glad that you have had the fortitude to relay your experiences to us, because not everyone gets to see that side of the coin.

    I love the way you can get our hearts pumping as you run to save lives, or check on behaviors that are risky, or give the thumbs to one of the blokes who gave it his best to do his job. I have said it before, I sure hope that someone is able to pick up on your novels and run with them.
    I see the big screen possibilities in your work.

    And for the record.. you are a poet too!! (I had to laugh when I read that little ditty! You are full of surprises!!) Thank you for sharing your life with us, Laurie.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Liz, What a great compliment, somebody actually savouring my work, that’s so beautiful thank you. Writing them is quite cleansing actually, it drags the stress out bit by bit and it does show people the other side of the coin. Fresh insights I think because people have some misconceptions about prison life. What they see on TV is prison guards who are corrupt or morons. Not everyday people doing a dangerous job.
      When you are paid to do a job you have to take the good with the bad, well cooked gas bottles or not. When all’s said and done it’s on your head. I’m still hoping for the day when someone say’s, ‘Hey, now that’s the movie I want to make.’ You have to keep the faith. Glad you like the ditty, I have a file of poems lurking somewhere, angry, venting ones and some nicer stuff too. I don’t mind sharing my life, it’s like a huge confession. I’ve already completed the last two Tribulations and they are, well interesting. Until then,
      Cheers
      Laurie

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  4. patgarcia

    Hi,
    Every time i read one of your articles, I am thankful that you got out of there with a healthy mind and the willingness to move farther with your life. I believe working in a prison can make you sour at the system. It is so obvious that the system is designed not to rehabilitate but to babysit.
    The laws that are made like, no mobile phones, makes no sense. You are not helping the people who work there. In fact, the system itself, is putting those supervisors and workers in jeopardy.
    Great article. Thank you for showing us some of the ridiculous rules that hamper a person from doing his job correctly as well as putting their lives in danger.

    Love you, Bro.
    Ciao,
    Patti

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Sis, well I think it’s still healthy, I’m not sure. It definitely does something to you, one can’t be surrounded by the negativity every day without ‘catching something.’ Yes the system is that, a system and there are flaws, big ones actually. I’m glad that I’m well out of it.
      Thanks for dropping by in your busy schedule Sis.
      Love from Laurie.

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  5. kelihasablog

    You know Laurie, It’s a good thing you are a big, strong guy! I’m sure your military training helped a lot. I know my son said it helped him while teaching in high school, but that’s a different kind of different… Wonderful writing!!!! 😀

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Keli, I didn’t get many people willing to have a go at me, the ones who tried usually did it from a distance. (next weeks blog) Actually I put it down to me being such a nice bloke. 🙂

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  6. Susan Wingate

    Your job is far too dangerous! But leave it to a Vietnam vet to get it done. Thanks for the light and humorous post about a very tense and frightening situation at your work.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Susan thanks, My job was far to dangerous, next week I’ll write about why I finally threw the towel in. Being a Veteran was helpful, if something went wrong in life I’d say, ‘What are they going to do, send me back to Vietnam?’
      Cheers
      Laurie

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      1. Susan Wingate

        Very dangerous. I always wonder what the percentages are for prison guard deaths. I bet it’s high and insurance must be impossible to come by because of it.

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