'I told my students I'd been in prison to get their attention'

"I was very young and wide eyed, terrified if the truth be told."

There was always one way to gain my students attention, and that was to say to them that I had been in gaol three times.

You could see their little minds ticking over wondering how a ‘nice’ man such as me could have been in gaol for any reason.

In my late teens and early twenties, I visited the maximum-security prison at Maitland NSW on three separate occasions.

The first time was to assist a priest friend of mine with a Christmas Eve Mass. Being young and very naïve at the time I had no idea as to what I might encounter. The outcome was very anti-climactic as only one prisoner attended and he decided to be the priest’s altar boy. That was the day the priest asked me to play something on the old pump action organ in the chapel only to discover it was a shell; everything had been stripped from inside the frame.

The second time the members of the St Vincent De Paul Society asked me to fill in for a morning of tennis in the main exercise yard. I could hit a ball back, but I was no match for the guys we played against that day. For me, it was an eye opener into prison life. I was very young and wide eyed, terrified if the truth be told. I remember as I was about to enter the exercise yard this little round prison officer telling me to get in there and I’d be ok. He reminded me of a Gestapo officer from some World War Two movie, I though he was as scary as the guys in the yard. Inside the guys were intent on playing tennis as hard as they could, they were very competitive and between games were keen to engage in conversation often about the lives they had led and how freedom had presented so many of them with temptations that resulted in their return to prison. I remember leaving that day and realising how prison was about deprivation. In those days, there was the grey of the concrete floor and walls and the blue sky above plus the green of the prisoners clothing. Outside the main gate was a small bush growing and I realised it was the first plant I’d seen the whole time I was in there.

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My third visit was when I was in my final year of Teacher’s College, and we took the college revue to the gaol one Sunday afternoon. We arrived at the same venue I had as I mentioned above been to Christmas Eve Mass. This time though, the room filled with the guys in their green and every seat bar the front row was occupied. At the appointed hour, the Prison “Debating Team” entered. These guys were dressed in blue pants, white shirts with ties and blue blazers. They sat in the front row and in the middle of the front row sat Darcy Dugan. At that time, he was one of the state’s most notorious criminals.

So, we did our show and after we’d finished the prisoners left except the “Debating Team” who hosted an afternoon tea for us. We all got to shake Darcy’s hand who expressed his gratitude to us for coming and entertaining them all. The one comment I remember him making was about the girls in our troupe. “You know,” he said, “it’s good you young folk coming here today. There are some guys in here who haven’t seen a woman in years.”

None of the girls felt at all flattered by that comment.

So that was my experience of the maximum-security gaol at Maitland which nowadays is closed and operates as a tourist destination.

There was nothing about the place in the 1970s to recommend it in any way; it was a harsh and brutal place housing some of the state’s worst criminals.  

Have you ever had reason to visit a prison?