Forget what you saw in Shawshank Redemption

“In the aged and frail unit we have all pastel colours,” he says.

“We painted it out because dementia patients look at pastel colours and relate to them, dark colours are oppressive, light [colours] are more suitable.”

There’s a lot of psychology around contemporary prison systems. Maybe it should be renamed Long Bay 2.0.

“That’s how the department is going. That’s what we have to do. We have to change with the times for us to be successful.

“If it wasn’t for the commissioner [corrective services Peter Severin and the minister David Elliott] I wouldn’t be able to do those programs. I lead down that road. No one pushed me.”

If you’d been at the Redfern All Blacks A-grade Grand Final (two weeks ago) you may not have been aware there were prisoners from Long Bay playing. They hadn’t escaped. It’s part of the Clean Slate program.

The governor’s emphasis is to reduce the recidivism rates of Aboriginal offenders in custody. He’s justifiably proud that some 30 have gone through the program and only two have come back into custody – for minor offences.

Behind him on a chair is a fluorescent vest which says “Incident Commander”.  He says he hasn’t had occasion to wear it in his three years at Long Bay.

“What the public [doesn’t] realise, I’ve got two teams working in the community as we speak right now,” he says.

“They are down at La Perouse doing the coastline, getting rid of all the lantana.

“We start at the Kokoda Track next week [he means the memorial in Concord], we are maintaining that. One day a week my team of officers with inmates take their cold lunch and all the whipper snippers and maintain the Kokoda Track. We don’t have sex offenders going out at all. The community [doesn’t] view that in very high stead.

“We do have murderers out there but they are coming down to the base of their sentence and you have got to give people that chance to be able to reform. What we do with those people is they wear ankle bracelets so if anything ever happens we know where they are.”

Prisoner profile, as well as age, has evolved. In the 80s, he says, mental health was rarely discussed. Then they were mainly armed robbers. Now the crimes of domestic violence and sex offences are more prevalent. Gangs are more of an issue. In the ’80s they operated covertly. Nowadays it is overtly.

“We now have terrorism. Back in the ’80s we had the Ananda Marga sect with the Hilton hotel bombing, the Colin Winchester murder [an AFP assistant commissioner]. Back then it wasn’t seen as that [terrorism] but now we have got this magic word terrorism and national security. We have got inmates designated NSI National Security Inmates, we have got a couple undergoing trial.”

There are other changes at Long Bay. Prisoners spend almost 12 hours out of their cells, from 6am to 6pm. Traditionally they were locked up from 7am to 3pm. Usually two to a cell (size 4m x 2m). They have their TVs (which they purchase), “buy-ups” (toiletries and additional food such as noodles and chips, which they also pay for).

Accompanying us on the tour is Patrick Kennedy, author of the recently published and intimately researched Long Bay. He has good reason to know the story of the jail, which has been home to Australia’s most notorious villains – the back cover name-drops Darcy Dugan, Tilly Devine, “Neddy” Smith, Russell Cox and members of the Comanchero bikie gang.

Kennedy grew up next door to the prison, where hitting a six in backyard cricket meant climbing the outer wall. His parents worked inside and as an ambulance paramedic he was called to crime scenes in the prison.

We pass through heavy gates into a caged sterile area (that’s the no-man’s land between fortress and freedom). This is Four Wing and the MSPC home to 100 inmates, two to a cell. Corrective Services is littered with acronyms. It stands for Metropolitan Special Programs Centre.

This is at the lower end of security with inmates getting work within the prison, which is run by the CSI (that stands for Corrective Services Industry). They earn a bit of money with jobs such as printing, repairing espresso coffee machines or running the prison bakery. More importantly, they gain skills for when they get outside.

Author Patrick Kennedy looks at the old gallows in Long Bay Prison.

Author Patrick Kennedy looks at the old gallows in Long Bay Prison.

Photo: Nick Moir

Down one end of Four Wing you can stand on the drop plate. There are two cells either side for condemned prisoners.  This is where the gallows were.

Kennedy writes of William Moxley, a rapist and double murderer hanged in 1932: “If Moxley dared to look up he would have seen the heavy oak wooden beam 16 feet above, holding a chain to which the noose was attached.

“Just before the black hood was placed over his head, the 15 men in attendance would have seen the fear in his eyes – that Moxley saw in his two victims just a few months earlier.”

The beam is still there with its hole for the chain which has been removed.

Next to CUBIT (Community Based in House Therapy) where the sex offenders and paedophiles are based. Our officer escort says: “It’s a sex offenders program and it is a very purposefully designed program to address their offending behaviour. It’s very heavily weighted with psychologists so that they can get the most out of it they possibly can. They are ordered to complete that program before they get released and that’s by the judge or SORC [Serious Offenders Review Council].”

A woman in her early 40s and two-and-a-half years in this unit introduces herself. The deal is we don’t use her name: “I’m one of the officers in CUBIT, a regular.”

“The inmates here are medium or high risk to the community. Their course, depending on how they individually cope, goes for about 12 months. Some people finish a little bit quicker. They are allocated their individual psychologists who work with them and monitor them closely,” she says.

“They do groups [sessions] about three or four mornings a week for two hours a day and they have a lot of homework and group work to do back in the cell.”

“Keep them busy” is the philosophy.

Challenging work? “No, they are very well behaved because they want parole. So they are on their best behaviour working in here.”

In the group therapy rooms there are about eight or 10 inmates to a therapist. This is where inmates spend two hours doing self-reflection and self-awareness and learn better coping skills for out in the community.

Group therapy worksheet on a wall in the Sex Crimes section in Long Bay Prison.

Group therapy worksheet on a wall in the Sex Crimes section in Long Bay Prison.

Photo: Nick Moir

Written on papers on the wall are phrases such as “understanding my offence; getting to know my positive side; continuing my journey”. There are also words describing their perceived attributes: “warm, good listener, trustworthy”, as well as a few stickers for the Rabbitohs.

From an adjacent room, officers can watch, but not hear, through a one-way glass in case things get ugly. Prison officers don’t get involved with the community sessions which are entirely the domain of the therapists.

Our male escort explains: “That’s to afford the inmates the opportunity to open up and be as honest as they can to address their offending behaviour and realise their triggers so that strategies can be put in place and give them the support so that when they feel the possibility may be arising for them to re-offend they know, and they are given a strategy so that they don’t re-offend.” Phew.

The CUBIT female officer adds: “It does get heated and usually they will leave of their own accord and go to their cell if they find it difficult. There is the odd inmate in here who isn’t a sex offender, they are aggressive or they might have had a history of sex offending,  so they are in here to deal with coping skills in the community.”

She adds: “I usually don’t look into their crime or ask about it or anything. It just passes me by. It’s just a job I come to and I don’t even think about what they have done, ever. You can’t afford to.”

Inside the sex offenders section of Long Bay Prison.

Inside the sex offenders section of Long Bay Prison.

Photo: Nick Moir

We move on past a group of sex offenders wearing the prison “uniform” of bottle-green trackies and feeding rosellas. They are overseen by a young, slightly built female officer. She, like all other officers, does not carry a gun.

Next on the tour is the bakery. It runs 12 hours a day, is staffed by 55 inmates and supplies bread, weekend desserts and lunches to 13,000 inmates from Grafton (the medium security Grafton Correctional Centre) on the mid-north coast to as far south as Mannus jail which is on the Albury Wodonga border.

The wages start for the first two weeks, without a sickie, at 30¢ per hour which is approximately $30 for the week (no minimum wage here). Once they learn a new skill they go up to 52¢ and the maximum wage they can earn here is $99.99 per week and that is for guys who are team leaders, the bakery manager tells me.

“We make muffins, madeira cake slice, orange cake slice, we make chocolate chip muffins, Anzac biscuits, jumbo cookies. We have a menu control plan which we must adhere to which means that the inmates are getting a different serving each week,” the bakery manager says.

“The inmates we have here are what we call [acronym alert] Special Management Area Placement. That covers all offences, but the bakery is predominantly staffed by sex offenders, at least 65-70 per cent.

“Generally sex offenders are a more compliant type of inmate. They are generally cleaner and more educated than the normal run of the inmates.

“The bread is made fresh daily on the premises, unlike a lot of bread on the outside. We bake it, slice it and dispatch it on the same day.”  There’s even gluten-free – all the bases are covered.

Patrick Kennedy, with his extensive knowledge of Long Bay, says the most startling change was the closure of the OBS or Observation Unit for people with a mental disorder. “They are no longer dealt with in the prison system but treated within the wonderful forensic hospital which abuts the jail but is run by the health department.

“These people were found not guilty because of mental illness. So to see them treated with respect rather than locked up four to a cell with no sewerage, which is how it was in the ’70s,  in the modern surrounds of the forensic hospital is a massive change.”

His father was the chief nurse for 20 years from 1953-1973 and his mother worked in the operating theatre from 1973 to the ’80s. He added: “I saw no evidence in my time in the prison system and even of late, of anything like Shawshank Redemption. I saw people who were firm but very fair.

“A prison officer went into a cell with me and there was someone in there and she didn’t know that. She said ‘Oh, sorry mate’ and then she gave me a tour of the cell. When we came out she said ‘I actually didn’t have to apologise to that guy but it’s polite to be like that and when you are polite to them it’s a calm prison’ and that’s what they want.

“The public does get the wrong message from those kinds of movies. There are two schools of thought. Some think there is the Shawshank type of heavy-handed treatment, on the other hand people think things are very cushy, like it’s a hotel Hilton.  It is not a place where I could spend in one of those cells, 13 foot by seven foot, any longer than 24 hours for me would be almost impossible.”

Long Bay is certainly convenient for visitors. Boasting an ocean location, this is prime real estate. Real estate agents are said to have been circling like the sea eagles on the coastline. How long before the state government lets the developers engulf it with apartments?

The governor explains. “They have been talking about selling off Long Bay for 30 years. I’ll see it, then I’ll believe it. I intend to stay in corrections all my working career. I have done 30 years now but I think Long Bay will still be here in another 10 years’ time, at least.

“My goal is to implement our state reform package. I want to make that work and make Long Bay one of the centres of jail excellence.”

But don’t forget, despite all of the progressive programs in place, this is still very much a prison. Driving up to the boom gate exit an officer indicates for us to stop.

“Could we please just check the boot please, sir.”

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