The Hill

In mid-1975, I was asked to take on the job of Superintendent of a boy’s reformatory in Adelaide, McNally Training Centre. The previous incumbent had left after a very scary incident that that had seen him in personal danger from a group of lads who had him trapped in a room. He was lucky to get out unhurt, but it was the behaviour of the staff who deserted him in that room that convinced him it was time to go. He remains a close friend of mine, and I know that night haunted him for years.

McNally was a pre-occupation of the press at that time, because of several riots and escapes, and the wider perception that young thieves and worse were getting off with a ‘slap on the wrist and a bag of lollies’ as one reporter put it. My appointment made it on to the front page of the daily paper, and there was pressure on me to get the place under control and out of the newspapers as quickly as possible.

Those were heady days in the Department for Community Welfare, which was responsible for young offenders. At just 29, I was in charge of a facility with 120 staff looking after about the same number of 13 to 18-year-old boys. With long hair, a beard and wearing a leather jacket, I and people like me in the new wave of young managers were a sharp contrast to the older staff. Most of them were English migrants who had been in the army during WW2 and Korea, and in their view they had taken on the job of running a prison for young men who needed to be straightened out. One of the senior people reporting to me had been rejected by the South African prison service as unsuitable, and I was to find out why over the next few years as he featured in one after another incident of excessive force.

The half-dozen or so new people, including me, were all university educated teachers, psychologists and social workers, keen to lead changes like banning corporal punishment, preparing the boys realistically for the lives they would return to after a period inside, and providing the basic education in reading and writing that most of them lacked. The average reading age of these 15-year-olds was 10, with a good 20% of the boys being functionally illiterate.

The previous priorities, including such highlights as marching practice, public caning for misdeeds, and making cement bricks for the staff to take home at no cost for their own use, were being phased out against fierce resistance from the older staff. Arriving at McNally, I was greeted by the would-be South African and taken on a tour, past rows of staff and boys standing at attention.

By the end of that day I had asked that such welcomes stop forthwith, insisted that my car and those of other senior staff would be parked wherever there was a space and not in the Superintendent’s area, refused an offer of as many bricks as I wanted delivered to my house, stopped the practice of all senior staff being brought their tea and coffee, in bone china, to their office, and asked for a report on why the boys on remand were waiting an average of six weeks to have a court report prepared, which usually resulted in their release. It helped that knew I had full backing on all these changes, from the Director General down to my senior team, but the tensions between the old and the new were always simmering.

The epicentre of the old ways was ‘The Block’, a maximum-security unit for the 20 or so boys judged most dangerous or recalcitrant. With five-metre walls topped with loose bricks, a huge gate opened with a huge key, and individual cells with steel doors, it was a prison in every way. All of the staff except one had been in the English army, mainly Guards regiments, or the military police. The culture gap between them and my sort of manager was enormous. They and I knew it was in The Block that my predecessor had been set-up for public failure and a high risk of injury or worse. Being ‘sent to The Block’ was feared by the boys, and the threat was used regularly when trouble seemed imminent.

Actually, trouble seemed imminent almost every day. Boy-on-boy fights and bashings, allegations of staff assaults on boys and vice-versa, theft, vandalism, escapes and riots all happened regularly during my first few weeks there. One night I was called on my ‘beeper’ to be told there were about twenty boys in a remand unit refusing to go to bed, and threatening to smash their way out if the Superintendent didn’t come to hear their complaints. I had been at a party, and was a bit tipsy, but I went anyway. I strode in, took one look at the situation, and told the several staff present I was going to see what the boys wanted. The door was opened, I went in, and I heard the door closed and locked behind me. I’d been set up. Just as they had expected, my naïve hubris propelled me past any pause for caution, and now I was locked in a room on my own with 20 boys, several of them much bigger than me.

One said, ‘Hey, look, he’s shitting himself. His legs are shaking.’ Some laughed, but I sensed many were frightened too—of what would happen to them afterwards, if the more violent ones went for me. I was very scared, but I was so pissed off with the staff outside just watching that I started walking up and down the aisle between the beds, talking about how this was no way to get on with their lives, and how they would all be home with their families soon if they just took it easy. It started to work, but one of the tough guys told them they could ‘Take this c—t and shut him up.’

As a few formed a circle around me, I resorted to something I had promised myself I wouldn’t do. I said, ‘I haven’t seen anything that would get you guys transferred to The Block—yet.’ Within seconds, everyone was lying on their beds. I strolled to the door as casually as I could, and waited for an agonising few seconds as the senior staff member on duty unlocked the door and let me out. Without a word, I walked out and drove home, stirred up, a bit ashamed of myself, but relieved not to have been hurt. I didn’t sleep much, and by the morning I’d decided two things. One was no repercussions for anyone involved would do any good. And two, I would start thinking about how to get rid of The Block altogether. I’d used it the same way it always had been, and as long as it was there, we could resort to fear and force when these kids needed us to do better.

So we got to work on real change. For a start, there were kids locked in McNally that didn’t need to be. Many of them were staying far too long on remand. I had a very competent and well-informed deputy, even younger than me, and she suggested we should implement a quick turnaround on court reports. We went to see the Chief Justice, and he was completely supportive. Within a month, we were getting boys back to court within ten days. Since about 80% were either bailed from court or given a community order, the population of the remand units plummeted. We also started making greater efforts to organise bail in the first place, so many boys were out the day after coming in on remand. As well as the natural justice of these new policies, we now had spare room for activities, spare staff to supervise and engage with the boys, and capacity to take staff off-line for training, all achieved with no new resources.

Next, we talked with the local high school about having a basic curriculum on offer in McNally, supervised by the high school. Three teachers were found who were keen, and the school was operating within a few weeks. We gave the boys the option of attending school or going to the mechanical, leather and woodwork shops as always, and we were all delighted when classes filled quickly. Illiterate boys, who couldn’t even read the captions in comics were progressing to normal reading ability for their age within three or four months in the school. The teachers inspired me. With their patience and ability to keep such damaged young men focused on the very things that they had failed at all their lives, they achieved more ‘corrections’, ‘training’ and ‘rehabilitation’ than the rest of us put together.

In the workshops, I put a stop to staff perks which were based on what amounted to slave labour. Staff brought in their cars, and the boys repaired, cleaned, re-sprayed and panel-beat them as required—all at no cost to staff and with no income for the boys. In woodwork, the boys had been making household items for the staff to take home. And of course, the brick-making had paved many a staff driveway or even built whole houses—all for free. To my surprise, this was the only set of changes I had to insist on with no support from any of my colleagues. Two of my deputies had already had their cars re-conditioned, and one had a new brick patio. Teamwork is the best way to get stuff done, but just occasionally leadership is very lonely.

We also decided to expand the senior staff weekly meeting to include several of ‘the old guard’, to make this a shared journey. The objective was two-fold. One, to do our best to make sure boys who could be with their families instead of with us on remand got the right help to achieve that. Two, for those that had to do some time, make sure we had as fair, safe and productive an experience to offer as possible. The inclusive meetings made a big difference immediately. I watched as one of the people who had stood and smirked while I was locked in that dormitory joined in enthusiastically with planning a new sport and fitness program. These were good times. But it was during one such meeting that we got an awful reality check.

A worker burst in and blurted ‘There’s been a fire in one of the time-out cells and there’s a boy might be dead.’ I ran with him to where thick black acrid smoke was clearing, to find a 15-year old boy being pulled from a cell. He was aboriginal, and his dark skin was now covered in black soot. It was clear we were too late. This beautiful boy, a great footballer and always cheekily grinning, had got into trouble by refusing to stop talking back to staff, and been sent to do half an hour in a cell. Like others, he had matches stuck up his rectum or under his foreskin, and he had deliberately set his mattress alight. In a poorly-ventilated small room, the poisonous smoke produced would have killed him in minutes.

After dealing with doctors, paramedics, the Director-General and even a reporter who got a tip-off, I spent some time with the worker who had put the boy in the cell. With 120 staff, we had just two who were aboriginal, and he was one of them. He had taken the boy to the cell, locked him in, and forgotten to go back and check after the mandatory five minutes. Usually a confident, cheerful person, he was hollowed out, breathing hard and almost incoherent. His eyes seemed blank and lifeless, as if he was in a deep dark place. I spoke quietly, asking him to sit down and get his breath, but I got nowhere. He was unreachable, and he resigned that same week. The social pressures he would face for years to come would punish him every day. It was risky enough to have been paid to be one of ‘the screws’, but now he was forever the guy who let a ‘nunga’ die in a cell at McNally.

Of course we tried to make sure it couldn’t happen again. We replaced the foam mattresses, maintained constant surveillance when someone was in a cell, and, more importantly, made it a rarely-used last resort, only to be used when the safety of staff or boys was at serious risk. The investigation that followed, and the later Coroner’s enquiry, all exposed a more authoritarian culture than even I had realised, particularly in The Block, where un-recorded use of isolation in cells had been happening every day. That tipped the balance for all of us on the senior team—it was time to find a way to close The Block. It was never going to be easy. Although the head of the staff, a stubborn defender of his regime, had just gone on extended sick leave, we knew the wider beliefs that the Block represented–discipline, ‘the only thing some of these boys understand’, proof that we weren’t just molly-coddling hoodlums, and so on—would make it politically difficult.

Luckily for us, the architects and engineers who came to look at the safety of the cells observed in passing that the high walls of The Block were in danger of collapse within a few years at most. It took a few very heated meetings and threats of union action, and some good footwork by me with my worried bosses, but within a month we had closed the doors. Not for the last time unfortunately. After I had left, a future Superintendent re-opened it. I learned a lesson then—if it is there they will use it. I applied the lesson to good effect years later when I was closing a mental hospital. Anyway, The Block walls did become unstable, so it had to be closed and demolished within another couple of years.

Gradually the ethos of the place was changing, at least on the surface. There were still perhaps 25 staff from the old days, and a few of them never adjusted. Although most had modest English army pensions, they were hanging out for their thirty years to get the generous South Australian superannuation, so we were stuck with each other. But now they were in the minority. With rapidly improving wages at the time, young well-educated recruits were not hard to find, with many rising to leadership roles within a year or two. About 50% were women, which was a huge cultural change for the better. Attitudes about how to help young men who had been losers all their lives were becoming more positive, creative and caring. Of course it wasn’t all like that. Institutions, especially locked ones, constantly breed dysfunctional behaviours, and there were many instances of wrong-doing by staff. It’s never easy to sack people, but I confess one or two of those opportunities gave me real satisfaction.

One coup was all about a kitchen door. My deputy had noticed that people often pulled up outside the back door of the kitchen when leaving work. She was sure some stealing was going on, but the head cook was adamant that could never happen with his trust-worthy staff. He came to see me, accompanied by the union representative, indignant that she was ruining his good name. With no hard evidence, I had to back off, which infuriated my deputy. Only a few weeks later, a boy made a successful escape by bursting into the kitchen, threatening one of the cleaning staff with a knife, and leaving by the back door. After checking she was OK, I asked the head cook to come into work. With all the staff assembled, I told them that they would not be at risk in future, because we were going to keep the back door locked, with the key only available from the security staff at delivery times. With no exit via the back door, there would be no more escape attempts through the kitchen.

There was dead silence. Everybody was in on the racket of taking free food home from the back door. From now on they would have to leave via the security check-point, bags checked like everybody else. As I reiterated that their protection was our top priority, the head cook’s contorted face was a treat to watch. The food bills went down by nearly 50% within a month. None of us had even guessed at the extent of the scam, which I later found out had been instituted by a previous superintendent, complete with a strict pecking order of who could take how much.

I’ve often reflected on how much good we did on ‘The Hill’, as people called McNally. For the boys we kept out of the place, by our actions around bail and quicker reporting to court, I’m sure outcomes would have been better. In any case, incarceration should always be a last resort. Some of my colleagues were setting up great programs in the community with families, finding real jobs for boys who were ready, and education and skills development for others. That was the future, not running a better institution.

For the boys who had to stay inside, I can’t say I have any confidence we turned many young lives around. I’m still sure the school was a good idea, and for some of them, I know we offered a respite from abuse, neglect and constant conditioning towards less productive and often shorter lives. And most of the new staff we recruited and trained helped to usher in a fair but firm and caring style that did less damage to already damaged boys than the old regime. I still think anyone making more than these modest claims about the benefits of youth prisons is kidding themselves.

The standout to me was how few of the boys were truly dangerous, or determined to be a criminal. Almost all of them were losers in life, used to failure, with little to look forward to. They had drifted into stealing cars, getting into fights, and falling for the ‘triple whammy’ of ‘abusing a police officer, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer’. One silly bit of cheek ending with serious charges with no witnesses called except other police.

I think there were only two boys I thought of as evil. One was a gang leader, and the other boys were terrified of him. Whenever some kid got his head pushed down a toilet or a knife was discovered, Tony was not too far away. He always smiled at me and said ‘Hello Mr Meldrum, how are you?’ It made me shiver. I just hoped he didn’t know where I lived. It surprised no-one when he got killed in a shoot-out over stolen drugs a few years later. The other nasty one raped several young women, and I was quite sure he would do it again, first chance he got. He did, and ended doing a long stretch in goal. His mother came to see me, and screamed at me that her boy was innocent, while he smirked in the background. It’s not easy to believe in reform and redemption in those moments, but thankfully they are rare.

Those boys are in their fifties now, the ones that survived. I occasionally run into or hear of some of them. A young man named William D hailed me in the street one day about ten years after I left McNally. I recalled that he had asked to see me in private in my office on the day of his release. He presented me with a perfect copy of the master key to the whole institution. He had made it in the metal-work shop, and had been using It in secret from time to time, just for fun. He’d never told anyone about its existence, until he gave it to me. I checked it on my door—it worked. William told me he had become so interested in locks that he went on to be a locksmith, with his own successful business. He had a young family and owned his house. Maybe he would have achieved all that and more without a spell in McNally. But I prefer to think that, even if by accident, we did our bit in helping him on the way to a good life.

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