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Social Issues

My jump from prison officer to social justice campaigner


One thing I learnt in my time as a prison officer is that there is no such thing as the justice system, and we should stop referring to it as such. It is the judicial system, run by judges and with little concern for victims or offenders.

My jump to social justice campaigner started with my work as a prison officer in the late 1980s. I spent 3.5 years working at Goulburn Maximum Security Prison, the toughest prison in the country.

During that time, I became concerned about the reasons people were in prison. Many were there for relatively minor crimes, and were mixed in with hardened criminals such as child killers, rapists and murderers, and this didn’t seem like a good idea.

More particularly, I was concerned at the amount of Aboriginal people in prison. They made up 17.5% of the prison population in NSW at that time, compared to only representing 2.5% of the wider community.

Many Aboriginal inmates were there for minor drug and alcohol offences, vagrancy, minor assaults and the like – things that seemed to get other offenders a slap on the wrist in the courts.

Deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were also much higher than for other ethnic groups, and this still seems to be the case today.

I don’t profess to completely understand why this is so, but there seems to be a lot of people much more informed about this matter than me that do know the answers. Perhaps the various governments should start listening to them and stop paying lip service to the problem.

It is true that many from the wider community were also in prison for relatively minor offences, but my experience showed me that many were from marginalised backgrounds.

It seemed the majority of people in prison experienced poor socio-economic conditions before thy entered the prison system. They were less educated, unemployed, low income workers and many had intellectual problems.

Many were there as a result of the NSW government closing down psychiatric hospitals, and I believe this was the case Australia wide. There was nowhere else to put them, so the courts put them in prison.

Now prison officers are generally pretty reasonable people, just doing a difficult job. True, like in just about every other profession, there are bad apples, but these are in the minority.

The fact is, though, we were not trained as psychiatric nurses or social workers, which is what the majority of prisoners needed. They were mixed in with some of Australia’s most hardened criminals, and any sociologist will tell you that they will learn the habits of these serious offenders while that is the social circle they are thrown into.

Some of the serious offenders we had were the Anita Cobby killers, Raymond John Denning (at one time Australia’s most wanted), the Milpera bikies and Ivan Milat (though he was after my time).

I remember the case of Peter Schneidas, who came to jail on a twelve month sentence for fraud and ended up getting life for killing a prison officer. Schneidas was clearly mentally ill, and should have been in a psychiatric ward for the criminally insane.

But these facilities had been shut down, and he was put into the charge of prison officers not adequately trained to deal with such people. The result was that an innocent prison officer lost his life, and Schneidas degenerated into full blown psychosis as a result of not getting the treatment he needed.

While this is an extreme case, there are thousands of other such cases in the annals of Australian criminal history where minor offenders have graduated to major offenders because of their time in prison.

This also causes severe problems for the prison officers, teachers, medical staff and social workers employed in the prisons. As mentioned previously, they are not adequately trained to deal with such cases.

The incidence of PTSD and related psychological illnesses is much higher amongst these workers than amongst any other profession, except perhaps the military and police officers.

I myself developed PTSD during my time working in the system, and it is something I still have to deal with today, thirty years later.

I was not particularly good as an officer, and realised it in time to get out in 1989. I returned to the prisons briefly in 1995, overseeing some construction work for an external contractor, in 1999 as a remand prisoner (released after 6 weeks) and again in 2019 as a contract teacher at Townsville prison.

These experiences have given me a unique perspective of the way prisons run, not just as an officer, but from multiple view points. It was because of my work as a prison officer that I moved into social justice in the 1990s.

I trained as a teacher, working with marginalised groups, with the aim of keeping them out of prison. I am not sure how successful I have been as an individual, but as part of a group of thousands of like-minded individuals, I think we have had some small successes.

I don’t know the answer, I am not trained in this area, but I have lived the experience. Prisons do not work for minor offenders or the mentally ill. State governments need to have specialist facilities, with specially trained staff, for these groups.

Prisons do not rehabilitate people or correct their behaviour, and should be kept for the worst offenders who cannot be rehabilitated or corrected.

Judges have their hands tied in many cases. Governments have legislated more and more to take discretionary power away from judges under common law.

These are elected politicians who have no expertise in criminology, psychology, sociology or any other related field. They are only interested in votes.

If we want to see a decrease in crime, these politicians need to start listening to the experts, and stop interfering based on their political ambitions.

We need a return to the justice system, and a move away from the judicial system.

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The costs of campaigning for changes to government legislation are considerable. If you appreciate this work, please consider donating so we can continue operating in this area.

The money raised will be spent on campaigning to state and federal MP s, as well as newspapers and other media across Australia, to improve social justice for all.

Please bear in mind that while I am a business consultant, I only work part time due to also being a disabled pensioner. I intend to take these matters to court, but that takes time and money.

Any money raised through donations will be kept in a separate bank account to cover these costs.

I would also welcome any help from legal professionals, or professionally qualified volunteers who are willing to assist.

The costs of campaigning for changes to government legislation are considerable. If you appreciate this work, please consider donating so we can continue operating in this area.

The money raised will be spent on campaigning to state and federal MP s, as well as newspapers and other media across Australia, to improve social justice for all.

Please bear in mind that while I am a business consultant, I only work part time due to also being a disabled pensioner. I intend to take these matters to court, but that takes time and money.

Any money raised through donations will be kept in a separate bank account to cover these costs.

I would also welcome any help from legal professionals, or professionally qualified volunteers who are willing to assist.

The costs of campaigning for changes to government legislation are considerable. If you appreciate this work, please consider donating so we can continue operating in this area.

The money raised will be spent on campaigning to state and federal MP s, as well as newspapers and other media across Australia, to improve social justice for all.

Please bear in mind that while I am a business consultant, I only work part time due to also being a disabled pensioner. I intend to take these matters to court, but that takes time and money.

Any money raised through donations will be kept in a separate bank account to cover these costs.

I would also welcome any help from legal professionals, or professionally qualified volunteers who are willing to assist.

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About Craig Hill

Social Justice Campaigner. Business and Education Consultant. Former Business/ESL Teacher. Lived in China and USA. Dealing with disability. My articles have been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and many other international publications.

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