About eighteen years ago I got a phone call one evening from a chap called Allan, who had just been appointed the senior education officer to a brand-new maximum-security prison being built on the outskirts of Sydney. He'd gotten my name from my brother, whom he'd been working with in another gaol in the Hunter Valley. Allan asked me if I wanted a job as a music teacher there. I thought about this proposition for a couple of nanoseconds and said "Count me in!"
Allan then enquired whether I knew any other teachers in the area who might be interested. He wanted, he said, to put together a team that would be comfortable with some innovative methods in prison education. He had a fairly sizeable budget, and carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. As someone who has never been content with the mundane, I thought this could be a very interesting project, so I mentioned a few people I thought might rise to the challenge (including my ever-lovin' wife), and we agreed to get everyone together at the gaol in a few days to talk it over.
I'd never been inside a gaol before. A few police cells, here and there, but never a full-on, state of the art, maximum-security penal establishment. That first day was a mind-blower. The gaol was a massive complex built in bushland; we drove up to it and parked in the car-park outside. It was just a concrete wall about thirty feet high, with coils of razor-wire perched on top, stretching for hundreds of metres on each side of a big, fortified gate-house built into the walls.
About eight of us walked towards the gate-house. A big steel door opened, and out walked a roly-poly young guy with a huge smile on his face. He spotted me and bounded over with his hand outstretched.
"Gooday, Laurie, I'm Allan." We all traded handshakes as I introduced him to everybody, and then walked inside.
The gatehouse itself was a complex of rooms, cells and administrative facilities. We all signed in on the day-book, and then worked our way through reams of forms, answering questions about our criminal records, associations, and sexual peccadilloes. (Nah, just made that up.) It was then time to move into the gaol proper. Allan had a little blue plastic "key" that he could insert into a slot beside the multitude of huge steel gates we had to pass through in order to get to the Education unit, a long, low brick building with bars on every window. Once you were in, you weren't getting out, that's for sure. As we walked along inside the perimeter, Allan told us that the gaol had an internal perimeter fence separated by about forty feet of "no man's land" to the higher outer walls. This space was loaded with laser beams, microphones in the ground, and any other paraphernalia that was going to prevent the desperadoes from escaping. It was all very impressive - anybody who could escape from this place would automatically qualify as a genuine Houdini. (And the fact is, no-one to date has ever done so, although a few have tried.)
There were no inmates in the gaol at this stage; five hundred of them would be arriving in a couple of weeks time, so each section of the gaol had time to get its act together.
We settled into the Education unit and had our first staff meeting. When Allan learnt that I had a degree in philosophy, he immediately suggested that I run a philosophy class with the inmates. Likewise, as he talked to each of the teachers and discovered different attitudes and abilities amongst them, he suggested various "non-standard" activities that they might like to pursue with the students. I started to realise that here was a bloke (and he was only about thirty-one or two) that I was going to like immensely.
Over the next couple of weeks, the team gradually built the resources and programs we were going to use. Maureen, the librarian, Allan and I spent time buying loads of books for the library. A pottery workshop was set up; an artist's studio took shape, and the basic ed. teachers commandeered rooms and started to adorn them like adult versions of primary-school classrooms. When Allan learnt that I was also a recording engineer and producer, he got another wild notion to build a recording studio and set it up with what was then a nascent computer-based recording technology. That project was to occupy most of my time there for the next twelve years, with some amazing results.
The inmates were eventually moved into the gaol over a weekend, and on the Monday, when I arrived for work, the place had become a serious prison. We were given a talking-to by a senior prison officer about security issues; you must always be within sight and sound of another worker; on no account must you form personal relationships with any inmates; you must never bring or take anything into or out of the gaol on behalf of inmates; you must wear your distress alarm (a little electronic device with a big red button) at all times; and so-on and so-on. As a maximum security prison, we would be working with some of the toughest criminals in the State, so it was reasonable to have some protocols. But it became apparent that, for the prison officers, there was a real "them and us" mentality in the place; "they" were always to be regarded as unscrupulous chancers who would do anything to get a benefit. "We" were always to be circumspect in our dealings with "them", otherwise really bad things could happen.
The reality, as it turned out, was markedly different.
Our first job was to interview and assess the inmates' educational status and need. As this was a working gaol, with a large metal-fabrication industry, inmates generally worked for part of the day, then came to education, and vice-versa. My first interview was with a giant of a bloke called, naturally, "Tiny."
"Let's get a couple of things straight, mate," he said as soon as he'd sat down. "I can't read and write, and I'm not interested in learnin'."
"Fair enough," I replied, "so what about doing something that you might find you like, such as pottery?"
"Pottery's for poofs."
"OK, what about learning to play the guitar?"
He laughed, and held up two gigantic paws with a couple of fingers missing from each hand. I couldn't do anything but laugh along with him. "Hmm, maybe I'll just get you a set of bongoes, mate. At least you look like you're good at belting things."
Well, Tiny reacted as if this was the funniest joke he'd ever heard. He came over to me, put a huge arm around my shoulders and said "You know what, Laurie - you're OK. Listen, if anyone here gives you any shit, just let me know, OK?"
I'd made my first friend. I knew, and rather liked, Tiny for a couple of years until he was released. It saddened me later to hear that he'd been murdered in a gang war on the streets of Sydney.
Mike, the art teacher, had made up a poster announcing the philosophy class. We'd decided to hold it in the library, as we'd gotten a whole lot of books on the subject, and the idea was that the guys could do some reading for a while and then we'd have an open seminar (or debate, as the classes usually turned out.)
On the first day I was astonished to see twenty-five blokes sitting in the library waiting for the class to start. Gangsters, murderers, diamond-thieves, bank-robbers and con-men formed the bulk of them. I looked over to Maureen, who was sitting behind her librarian's desk. She had a grin from ear to ear, and said "This is gonna be interesting."
(Maureen was an attractive young woman of about thirty-five, with a bubbly personality to boot. All of the inmates thought she was great, but a few of them decided that she needed a bit of care. So you would always see one of the toughest blokes in the gaol - quite often it was Tiny, who you'll remember couldn't read to save himself - sitting a few feet away from Maureen in a comfy-chair reading the paper, or a book. After a couple of hours an equally tough bloke would come and tap him on the shoulder, and they'd exchange places. Anyone who said anything out of line to Maureen, or, heaven forbid, tried to touch her, was asking for a miserable time in the showers.)
The philosophy group became an outstanding success. Here were a bunch of characters whose lives had, generally, been nothing but crime since they were youngsters. Although they were, in the main, poorly educated in a formal sense, many of them were very intelligent and had plenty of robust ideas. They started to learn a great deal about the construction of society, and I used Hume, Mill, Marx and other philosophers to provoke them to think about the nature of crime, liberty, and social responsibility.
A new guy came into the gaol one Monday. Len was a career criminal, doing ten years for robbing banks, extortion, kidnap and other crimes. Highly intelligent, Len latched onto the philosophy class and became one of its most outspoken debaters. He was also something of an epicure in the world of the big-time criminal. He enjoyed the good things in life: money (obviously), good clothes, cars, properties. Not long after he arrived, we were discussing something or other when my wife walked into the library for some hot water out of the urn.
"Hey," said Len, in a hushed tone, "see that one?" He pointed to my wife (who, I have to say, is a slim woman with a classically beautiful face) and said "I reckon if you spent about three thousand bucks on her she'd come up trumps!"
All of the other blokes knew that Chris was my wife, and they all immediately started to inspect the floor, as if the carpet was the most interesting thing in the world.
"What's up with you guys?" asked Len. One of the other crims cleared his throat loudly, and said "Len, that's Laurie's missus you're talkin' about."
Len turned around to me, unfazed, stared straight into my eyes, and with the slightest hint of a grin said
"So, do you want to borrow a few grand, Laurie?"