Our jails at break­ing point

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CARROTS rather than sticks was the mantra for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in­side South Aus­tralian pris­ons in the early 1970s, un­der Don Dun­stan’s pi­o­neer­ing La­bor gov­ern­ment.

But many not only ate the car­rot, they stole the stick and broke out of the cage.

And a decade of good in­ten­tions ended in loom­ing chaos and vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially in Yatala Labour Prison and the now-de­funct Ade­laide Gaol.

Es­capes in­creased, as did vi­o­lence among in­mates con­trolled by a “mafia” of con­victs, while prison guards and ad­min­is­tra­tors fell into dis­pute over a sys­tem seem­ingly out of con­trol. In Septem­ber 1970, the na­tional spot­light fell upon SA pris­ons when three es­capees and kid­nap­pers were ar­rested at gun­point on the Birdsville Track.

Terry Ha­ley, Ray­mond Clif­ford Gun­ning and Mur­ray Andrew Brooks were low-se­cu­rity “trusted” in­mates at Cadell in the River­land. They were all serv­ing house­break­ing sen­tences and due for re­lease early the fol­low­ing year.

But they failed to re­turn from an un­su­per­vised af­ter­noon walk and in­stead trekked about 12km through scrub­land to the Schiller farm at Mur­bko in the up­per Mur­ray­lands.

The es­capees seized a 12gauge shot­gun, tied up mem­bers of the fam­ily and or­dered their 21-year-old daugh­ter Mon­ica to come with them in the Schiller fam­ily’s car.

The brazen kid­nap­ping sparked a huge manhunt, with grave fears the en­gaged Mon­ica Schiller could be harmed or killed. To­gether, they drove north along rugged roads be­fore be­ing spot­ted by po­lice air­craft near Clifton Hills, about 150km south of Birdsville.

They hid along­side build­ings be­fore be­ing con­fronted by armed po­lice – ac­com­pa­nied by The Ad­ver­tiser re­porter Brett Bayly and pho­tog­ra­pher Ray Ti­tus, who cap­tured in­cred­i­ble ac­tion shots that be­came iconic images in Aus­tralian crime re­port­ing.

Miss Schiller was trau­ma­tised and soon af­ter mar­ried her fi­ance. The trio re­ceived hefty 15-year jail terms.

De­spite his crime, Ha­ley was again soon con­sid­ered as a “trustie” by prison au­thor­i­ties and in Jan­uary 1972, wan­dered away from Yatala with three other in­mates from an au­tho­rised ten­nis match on a court out­side the prison.

Miss Schiller was be­mused, along with most South Aus­tralians. “I didn’t think they would let Ha­ley out to play a ten­nis match,” she said.

It was an em­bar­rass­ment for au­thor­i­ties, but far from the last they would en­dure in a tu­mul­tuous decade of trial and er­ror. Pris­on­ers leav­ing the grounds to play sport was banned at Yatala, where guards asked for ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions so they could alert each other to any prob­lems.

The Comptroller of Pris­ons, Mr L Gard, be­moaned a sys­tem run by “so-called psy­chol­o­gists, psy­chi­a­trists, ide­al­ists and the­o­rists”. Mr Gard said the well-in­ten­tioned re­forms were in­stead “gam­bling against the pub­lic wel­fare”.

“Sooner or later, the pub­lic will get up in arms about this warped sen­ti­men­tal­ity and de- mand a more re­al­is­tic ap­proach,” Mr Gard said.

He was right. But it would take a long time and a lot of suf­fer­ing be­fore things changed.

The far­ci­cal es­cape of con­victed killers and part-time pup­peteers Noel Rus­sell McDon­ald and John Michael Farnsworth from the 1973 Royal Ade­laide Show sparked a five-day manhunt and a longer witch-hunt.

A sub­se­quent re­view of the Royal Show pup­pet show drew the wrath of au­thor­i­ties. “Much too am­bi­tious,” the Crown Solic­i­tor found.

“Pro­longed the­atri­cal per­for­mances by pris­on­ers in pub­lic” were banned from then on.

It also spelt the end of the Yatala Labour Prison Pup­pet Troupe, which fell away along with a Po­etry Club that ran on Sun­day af­ter­noons and had won a fed­eral grant.

Mu­si­cals pro­duced by in­mates and per­formed to the pub­lic fell by the way­side, but the brazen es­capes con­tin­ued un­abated.

IN mid-1974, a TV sta­tion chief re­ceived a men­ac­ing piece of viewer feed­back, in the form of a ri­fle and TV set, de­liv­ered to the news­room.

On June 11, 1974 a young in­mate re­cov­er­ing from a her­nia op­er­a­tion in Mod­bury Hos­pi­tal es­caped, only to be caught soon af­ter. On June 15, he bolted from the hos­pi­tal again, nar­rowly avoid­ing cap­ture sev­eral weeks later when po­lice spot­ted him in a car.

The .22 cal­i­bre ri­fle and TV were dropped off at Chan­nel 10’s Gil­ber­ton stu­dios, later the home of Chan­nel 7, af­ter the Au­gust 6 nightly bul­letin.

Two mes­sages, ti­tled “Dear News­man” and “The chief of the CIB”, were taped to the weapon along with the TV set, with a note stat­ing it was “a gift to the news re­porters” that had been stolen from the 277 Mo­tel at Gle­nunga.

In neat cap­i­tal let­ters, one of the mes­sages stated “Guns don’t win bat­tles. To the chief of the CIB. This is the Es­capee’s Gun.”

Rapists, killers and armed rob­bers were of­ten at large, and while some were re­spect­ful or even charm­ing to those they came across, some were des­per­ate to cre­ate may­hem be­fore they were cap­tured.

A teenager who fled Yatala in 1976 with a pitch­fork then went to the north­east sub­urbs home of a mar­ried woman and raped her while threat­en­ing to garotte her with a piece of wire.

The prison guards were un­happy and had threat­ened strike ac­tion over is­sues in­clud­ing when they re­ceived pay cheques, as a grow­ing sense of ap­a­thy de­vel­oped.

Many prison guards, es­pe­cially old-school screws hard­ened by a mil­i­tary back­ground, felt the swing away from iron-fisted rule over in­mates had gone too far.

They were in­creas­ingly held to ac­count for is­sues out of their con­trol but but pris­on­ers could now sport long, flowing hair, had ac­cess to books and news­pa­pers and could put posters on the walls of their cells, in which they spent 13 ½ hours a day.

In the mid-70s, 70s, an ex­pe­ri­enced guard told old The Ad­ver­tiser there was a new con­di­tional de­gree gree of re­spect from guards to­wards rds con­victs.

“We don’t t use au­to­cratic lead­er­ship. We treat them with cour­tesy and we ex­pect cour­tesy back. If some­body speaks to me like a bas­tard then I will be a bas­tard,” he warned.

While the La­bor gov­ern­ment ad­vo­cated re­form, it could never achieve it while un­able to af­ford to fix the third-world con­di­tions of the now-de­funct Ade­laide Gaol and Yatala Labour Prison, which at that time re­mained a relic of the 1850s. By the end of the 70s and the La­bor gov­ern­ment’s rule, Ade­laide had en­dured a se­ries of mur­ders and un­solved crimes which still haunt the state.

Dr David Tonkin took the reins as Lib­eral Premier in Septem­ber 1979, in­her­it­ing a prison sys­tem on the verge of chaos. By the end of the Lib­er­als’ reign of less than three years, pris­on­ers were threat­en­ing to riot, bash their cap­tors and burn Yatala and Ade­laide Gaol to the ground.

This time, the crooks were true to their word, and the 1980s would be a wild and fiery ride in­side SA pris­ons.

DRAMA: Po­lice hand­cuff three prison es­capees on Birdsville Track in 1970 af­ter tak­ing a young woman hostage.

TROUBLE: Aerial view of Yatala La­bor Prison in 1978.

AR­CHAIC: Ade­laide Gaol cell com­plete with metal bucket “lava­tory” in 1978.

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