Some years ago, I tried to take my partner to Auschwitz on her birthday. Surprisingly, we are still together, although neither of us has yet been to Auschwitz. This year, I was determined to visit the old jail at Maitland, New South Wales, on a tour led by a former prison officer. The warden tour takes place only once a month and – what luck! – there were spaces available on my partner’s birthday.
I hadn’t realised until I began working on this story, but I’ve been behind bars in every Australian state and territory. As a tourist, I’ve visited Pentridge (before it was knocked down) in Victoria; Fremantle Prison, Western Australia; the old Adelaide jail, South Australia; Fannie Bay jail, Northern Territory; Port Arthur, Tasmania; and Boggo Road, Queensland. As a journalist, I’ve been admitted to Long Bay, NSW, and Bimberi Youth Justice Centre in the ACT.
Normally, you’d have to go on an interstate killing spree to clock up such a variety of cell time, but I’ve only ever faced court on a single charge of drunk and disorderly behaviour (bound over to keep the peace for one year, if you must know).
I’m not sure if prison visiting is a hobby or a disorder – I’ve never met anyone else who does it – but my partner is unreasonably tolerant of the pastime. She agreed to a weekend in Maitland, although she didn’t think our kids, who are still at school, should take the tour. Which is how I ended up alone in jail on her birthday.
Maitland is a Hunter Valley town with what is known in Australian travel writing as “a rich heritage” – that is, there are some quite large, comparatively old public buildings. Of these, the jail, built in 1848, is both the earliest and the most storied.
It’s a stern, inscrutable sandstone complex enclosed by 7.5-metre walls reinforced by gun towers. Our guide, Keith Bush, started work as a prison officer in the already hopelessly outdated and insanitary maximum-security jail in 1975. He was on duty on October 27, the day of the “Maitland Riot”, when years of prisoner frustration finally boiled over into violent rebellion. The inmates were angry, says Bush, “because of overcrowding, the bad food and” – he lowers his voice – “the bashings that went on in the early days”.
Rioters set parts of the jail alight and tried to attack the gun towers, and the revolt was only quashed when the prisoners choked on tear gas, hurled in canisters by the guards.
Bush stayed on at Maitland until the prison closed in 1998, then did another five years at St Heliers prison farm in Muswellbrook, in the Upper Hunter, before, he says, “I realised I was in the wrong job”.
He is quick to admit that life in Maitland jail was terrible for prisoners in the 1970s and beyond.
“A lot of people don’t realise how hard it was on the poor buggers,” he says, “and some deserved it and some didn’t. It’s as simple as that. Because if you think everyone in jail’s guilty, you’re a hypocrite. Some people are innocent. They’ve been wrongly charged. But as a prisoner here you treat them all the same, because you don’t know. They all tell you they’re innocent. Ivan Milat told me he was innocent.”
It’s fashionable in museums throughout the world to encourage the visitor into a faintly juvenile charade in which they adopt the identity of a character from history and follow their life’s journey through the various exhibits. Bush offers his own version of this practice when he invites us to imagine the prison days of a notional 18-year-old who is jailed at Maitland in the 1970s for non-payment of traffic fines.
He could be locked in a cell with a prisoner doing 10 years. “And it’s his cell,” says Bush. “It’s his house. There’s nowhere to get away from him. He’ll take your stuff. If he can’t do it on his own, he’ll bring in his mates to do it with him.
“You were locked in these cells for 17 hours a day with someone who doesn’t like you. Or someone who does like you. Either way, it’s a problem.”
Bush’s prison novice enters the yard and innocently takes a lifer’s seat. “He’ll come in,” says Bush, “grab you by the scruff of the neck, throw you down and give you the kicking of your life.”
The beating is seen from the tower, a prison officer rushes into the yard, the prisoners attack him, the guard in the gun tower fires to protect his colleague, and warning shots slam into the walls.
Bush points out bullet holes in the brickwork, the scars left by .22 shells from a .303 rifle.
And there is no let-up from the savagery. When – on a subsequent day, presumably – he tries to use the exposed outdoor toilet, the luckless young man is gang-raped by older prisoners.
It’s all quite enthralling, like being inside a prison movie, which, of course, is my favourite kind of movie.
The tour is advertised at 90 minutes, but on my partner’s birthday it lasted two hours. It ended with a pass-around of various homemade weapons smuggled into the jail by visitors. These include a “push dagger”, a short-bladed knife worn like a knuckleduster, which was made in metalwork classes as a Father’s Day present by a prisoner’s son. All I got for Father’s Day was a handpainted plaque that says “Dad”.
After Maitland, my own birthday seemed doomed to be overshadowed. We planned a boring week of skiing at Perisher Valley, with no bashings, riots or push daggers. However, by chance I learnt that Cooma, only 95 kilometres from Perisher, is home to the Corrective Services NSW Museum, perhaps the least publicised museum in Australia. It’s attached to the minimum-to-medium-security Cooma Correctional Centre, which is a working jail. On its tours, offered from Monday to Saturday, a real, sentence-serving inmate guides lucky families around exhibits, including riot shields and batons, manacles and leg irons and, of course, gallows (the noose is a highlight of every good jail museum).
There isn’t a lot else in Cooma, except a museum to the Snowy Mountains scheme, but then there’s not much in the Valley of the Kings except the tombs of the pharaohs. And the Corrective Services museum has the actual bars that were sawed through by Russell “Mad Dog” Cox when he escaped from “escape-proof” Katingal, NSW, in 1977. Not only that, but someone has also made a dummy of Cox squeezing through the gap.
To a prison tragic like me, these are the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
While I marvelled at Cox’s ingenuity, my kids interrogated the unassuming inmate guide about the price of Tim Tams in jail. Truly, there was something for all the family.
So what’s left for next year’s birthdays? Well, the best might not be over. It turns out I went to Boggo Road on the wrong day. On the third Sunday of each month, a former inmate of the Brisbane prison’s No. 2 Division, which closed in 1989, takes visitors through the yards and answers questions about his incarceration. He was in for murder, so it would be like touring the Galápagos Islands with David Attenborough.
I bet my partner won’t let me take the kids on that one, either.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Jail breaks". Subscribe here.