Our jails at breaking point
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.