Why an Aussie prisoner wants to keep going back to jail

A tired Australian father who has spent so much of his life in jail it’s ‘become home’ has revealed he’s desperate to help his young son avoid a life of .

Darrel, who is doing a 14-month stretch and has spent 20 of his past 26 years in jail, is so uncomfortable with freedom that he admitted deliberately getting locked up in the past.

The regretful 40-year-old is embracing a Corrections program in Wellington Correctional Centre to write stories to his boy and said it is ‘changing’ him.

‘I’ve done a lot of jail, maybe 20 years in instalments. I’m 40, I’ve been coming in and out [of jail] since I was about 14. It becomes home, it’s my safety net in a sense,’ Darrel said.

Darrel, who is doing a 14-month stretch and has spent 20 of his past 26 years in jail, is so uncomfortable with freedom that he admitted deliberately getting locked up in the past

The worn-down dad is one of several inmates and corrections officers sharing their stories in Channel Nine’s recent series . 

‘When things get a bit hard outside [I] just stuff up and come [back to] jail,’ he said.

‘But now I’ve got a son, things are changing, yeah. My son is my drive, my focus for when I get so-so. I don’t want him to go down this path.’

The ‘Shine for Kids’ program Darrel is taking part in is partly about breaking the cycle of generational criminality in families.

One of the activities Darrel does is write about dinosaurs to his young son.

‘I’d rather be in here doing this than doing something else in the yard,’ Darrel said. 

It is estimated up to 77,000 Australian children have had least one parent incarcerated.

Based on estimates that one in five inmates also had a parent in jail, that means that 15,000 children with a parent who has done time are also at risk of following them.

‘It’s [about trying to] connect the dads with their children and build that bond [to] try and stop recidivism,’ said Tanya, Wellington Corrections Centre’s child and family coordinator.

In 2018, Daily Mail Australia visited Australia’s newest maximum security prison, where inmates can make late night telephone calls or watch their own touch-screen televisions – but they are under extreme scrutiny.

This is the Hunter Correctional Centre (HCC), north of Sydney, and jail authorities believe it may be the future of rehabilitating some of our worst criminals. This is not the facility Darrel is housed in.

Inmates present themselves for muster; as each of their surnames is read out they will answer ‘yes’, ‘yes, miss’ or ‘yes, sir’

There are no cells and inmates can make late night telephone calls or watch their touch-screen TVs – welcome to Australia’s newest maximum security prison, the Hunter Correctional Centre at Cessnock, about 150km north of Sydney

The design of Hunter Correctional Centre features four wings, each with four dormitories – or ‘pods’ – housing 25 inmates in cubicles. Each cubicle has a desk, stool, mattress and a 60cm interactive television. Inmates can decorate their cubicles

They are also under some of the most intense surveillance of any prison in the country and an elite armed immediate action team is stationed within the facility providing a constant response capability for any incident.

The aim of the rapid-build prison is ‘to achieve as close to 100 per cent engagement of inmates in employment, life skills, education and programs to address their offending behaviour,’ a Corrective Services spokeswoman said.

The radical layout of one of Australia’s newest prisons, the Hunter Correctional Centre (HCC), north of Sydney, makes it far more difficult for prisoners to hide contraband

As well as working for five hours a day – for a $65 a week pay cheque – inmates have up to three hours for activities including access to the oval, running track, library and a multi-faith chapel. 

‘Charlie’ is a 25-year-old offender who still has to serve at least 12 years of his sentence and has been at HCC since March. He has previously spent time at the maximum security Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre at Silverwater, Lithgow, Parklea and Long Bay jails. 

The 60cm interactive television in each cubicle provides access to free-to-air channels, radio and occasional movies

‘I’d like to stay here,’ Charlie says.

‘As far as jail goes for a maximum security inmate this is as good as I’ve seen it.’ 

Hunter Correctional Centre was built in just 12 months and opened on January 30.

Its design features four wings, each with four dormitories – or ‘pods’ – housing 25 inmates in office-sized cubicles. Each cubicle has a desk, chair, mattress and a 60cm interactive television.

Members of the immediate action team monitor a pod being mustered from a mezzanine level above the 25-man dormitory

Some of the cubicles are decorated with pictures of scantily-clad women – including one of Margot Robbie in a one-piece swimming costume published only this week – while others are plastered with photographs of grandchildren.

Rugby league emblems are popular and many inmates use a rolled up towel on the floor to mark their cubicle’s imaginary ‘door’. 

The touch-screen TV has all free-to-air channels, as well as movies, radio and a ‘kiosk’ where inmates can monitor their prison accounts and phone balances.

Inmates are provided with toilet paper, plastic cutlery and safety razors which they can store in their personal cubicles

There are two telephones which can be used for 10-minute paid calls from 6am to 9pm and a kitchen with two microwave ovens, two fridges, one commercial toaster, a hot water urn and toasted sandwich press, bolted down.

Each pod has eight bathroom cubicles which contain a toilet, sink and shower. Only one inmate is allowed in the cubicle at any time, allowing for greater privacy and security. 

There is a panic button inside the cubicle and an alarm system is activated if more than one person enters the bathroom or if an inmate spends too long inside.

There have been no deaths in custody, no escapes, only one self-harm incident and assaults on inmates are way down at HCC

While the security arrangements for accommodation differ from other maximum security prisons, the outside perimeter appears traditional, if more technologically advanced. 

Two 5.1m anti-climb fences are separated by a sterile zone which is monitored by a visual motion detection system incorporating infra-red cameras which make night appear almost like day. 

There are more than 600 CCTV cameras watching over the entire prison with the capacity to zoom in so close the operators can read newsprint in an inmate’s hands. 

The pods are overlooked by a mezzanine walkway which is patrolled by officers including members of the immediate action team who are armed with gas-shooting guns. 

This inmate has products including baby powder, shampoo and deodorant lined up on the top of his cubicle partition

In the event of trouble, CS canisters can also be deployed through ‘gas hatches’ at the same time as the rear door of the pod is locked and the ventilation system shut down. Just two canisters will incapacitate an entire pod. 

The whole facility is controlled by a central command post from where all doors, alarms and other devices can be operated and monitored.

Perhaps contrary to public expectation, the open nature of the accommodation has led to fewer assaults. 

Since HCC has opened there have been 4.33 inmate assaults per 100 inmates, compared with 16.88 per 100 inmates for other maximum security centres in NSW. 

Inmate-on-inmate assault rates at both two rapid-build prisons have remained substantially lower than at other maximum-security prisons across the state.

Use of force incidents at HCC have been recorded 2.78 times per 100 inmates, compared with 11.69 per 100 inmates in the same six-month period and none of those incidents has involved chemical munitions.

HCC recorded a rate of 6.5 misconduct incidents per 100 inmates in June, compared with an average of 20 misconduct incidents per 100 inmates at other maximum security centres.

Inmate Charlie says he has seen less violence than in other prisons where had been used to being locked in a cell for up to 18 hours a day. 

Inmates at HCC can learn skills such as upholstery. The products they make are used in other jails throughout NSW

The occupier of this cubicle plasters his wall with pictures of scantily clad women. Margot Robbie at far right is a new addition

‘At the (MRRC) you’re chucked out in the yard and doing nothing and then put back in your cell,’ he says. ‘There you remain until the next morning. 

‘We’ve got a lot more freedom here. We don’t get locked in a cell of a night-time.

‘We can work. We can use the phones at 9 o’clock at night. I can speak to my family almost anytime I like.’

Charlie says some maximum security inmates prefer to be locked up in their cells but he knows where he’d rather be. 

‘But personally, I do prefer it here,’ he says. ‘It is a lot more open. There is more freedom. I like the freedom of being able to get up and walk around when I like. 

‘Also having a private bathroom and shower is a big improvement as well.’

Living in a dormitory does have its challenges, including the odd loud snore from a neighbouring cubicle. 

‘Our pod’s pretty quiet,’ Charlie says. ‘We’ve got one or two bad snorers. It does cause some issues occasionally.

‘Obviously jail’s jail. You’re going to have certain issues. You’d think chucking 25 blokes together you’d get more dramas. I’ve seen almost none. It’s a much more relaxed feel.’

Governor Richard Heycock served more than seven years in the Royal Australian Navy and has a background in Community Corrections, where he ran the Balunda-a diversionary program.

Balunda-a is a program for male offenders aged over 18 who work on a beef cattle property at Tabulam in far north-east NSW and Governor Heycock describes HCC as like Balunda-a ‘on steroids’.

He credits his staff with ‘buying-in’ to the new model, which works in large part because ‘everyone is busily active, doing things.’ 

‘I’ve got a dedicated staff who want to be here,’ he says. ‘For me it is the culture of the staff that makes the difference. Them taking ownership of their roles.’

Every inmate at HCC is required to work. Prisoners can learn skills including metal work which they can use on the outside

Inmates have up to three hours each day for activities including access to the oval, running track, library and chapel

‘The inmates don’t feel like it’s us and them situation all the time. The stats clearly show that we’ve got less inmate on inmate assaults.’ 

All the inmates in HCC were previously in protection at other prisons and had to sign-off on being in general population to come here. There are murderers, sex offenders and members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

‘It’s a privilege to be here,’ Governor Heycock says. 

‘These guys here don’t get a choice, they have to go to work and programs. The onus is on them. There’s a lot less time for them to get bored and destructive.’

When Daily Mail Australia visits there is less aggression and tension in the air than at other maximum security prisons; the place is almost eerily quiet and clean. 

‘Generally they jeep them pretty tidy,’ Governor Heycock says of the cubicles.

Assault rates at the two rapid-build prisons have remained substantially lower than at other NSW maximum security prisons

Hunter Correctional Centre Governor Richard Heycock wants to see inmates rehabilitated and return to the community

Drug use is ‘minimal’ due to good prison intelligence and constant surveillance but inmates still try to find ways to get high. 

‘They get so desperate they’ll crush the paint on the walls just to smoke it,’ Governor Heycock says. ‘If they think it does something, they’ll do it.’ He does not know if smoking paint works. 

And as for theft, with the cubicles being so open? ‘There’s none,’ Governor Heycock says. ‘It’s just respect for each other. Each of the individuals respects each other’s personal space.’

As with every prison there is a hierarchical structure – the sweepers who keep the dormitories clean command the most respect – and plenty of unwritten rules, such as not ‘playing up’ during visits. 

Some inmates whose security classification has been reduced choose to stay in maximum security at HCC so they can take advantage of the work, environment and programs it offers.  

Prisoners at HCC have more access to recreational facilities than at most other maximum security prisons in Australia

A typical weekly menu is displayed in the kitchen at HCC where inmates pack meals which are distributed through the prison

‘We’re trying to look at different ways to educate them,’ Govenor Heycock says. ‘Inspire them to do different things with their lives.

‘I think it gives them a sense of purpose as well. And they’re a little bit more tired at the end of the day.

Inmates are woken at 5.45am and their days heavily structured for the next 12 hours. 

‘Inmates like routine,’ Governor Heycock says. 

‘It’s really hard for them to start with. They were used to getting out of their cell at 8 o’çlock in the morning and being back in their cell by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.’ 

Education, other programs and employment are undertaken over a 12-hour period to ensure inmates make the best use of their time. Inmates are engaged and productive, and ready to rest at the end of a full day.

Two hundred inmates work at industries including upholstery, metal work and food services for up to five hours in the morning, while the remainder undertake their education and programs. The groups swap over in the afternoon.

Touch football is a popular pastime on Hunter Correctional Centre’s oval, which inmates have access to every day of the week

There are 400 inmates at Hunter Correctional Centre. Much of their day is occupied with work, education and other programs

Inmate Charlie has been working as a clerk in the heavy industry office lately, improving his computer literacy, having already gained some welding skills.

‘I’ve picked it up pretty quickly,’ he says.’ I guess it’s better than sitting on my hands all day.’ 

He is also undertaking music studies, learning guitar and how to write songs. ‘I’m learning a lot about music producing. I’m learning a lot about business management. I’m really enjoying that.

‘I could see myself working on the outside with metal as well.’  

‘There is a lot more offered in terms of programs and work. The days are much more structured. They are very full-on days. It does get tiring at times.’

Governor Heycock says the dormitory accommodation has been a success and putting inmates behind cell doors does not stop assaults.

While there are no cells at HCC some inmates choose to use a rolled up towel to mark the ‘door’ to their personal cubicle

The dormitories at HCC have high ceilings and baffles to reduce the spread of sound. They are surprising quiet even when full

‘Nothing prevents that in any other jail setting,’ he says. ‘They’re still going to do it if that’s what they want to do.’

Taking away the problems of two or three men being locked up in a cell with one toilet, one television and one shower has removed some of the triggers for violence. ‘Little things become big things,’ Governor Heycock says. 

Senior Correctional Officer Melanie Campton agrees. ‘There’s no pressure from a cellmate in terms of what they’re going to watch on TV, when they’re going to shower,’ she says. ‘Little things that you would take for granted.’ 

SCO Campton has previously worked at Shortland Correctional Centre, also at Cessnock, St Heliers near Muswellbrook, Silverwater Women’s in Sydney’s west and Wellington. 

Inmates in one of the prison’s industrial areas prepare lunch. On Thursday they were having a chicken taco and salad wrap

‘The main differences that I can see are the structured day,’ she says. ‘Even though every jail has a structure. 

‘There are consequences for breaking those rules,’ Governor Heycock says. ‘Those consequences may be some re-education amongst themselves.’

Any written rules that are broken can dealt with by the intimidating immediate action team, which is able to reach any part of the prison within two minutes.   

‘For us, they’re a safety buffer,’ Governor Heycock says. ‘They are the controlling influence on the inmates.

The immediate action team’s officers can reach any part of Hunter Correctional Centre within two minutes to quell trouble

‘Officers here will work with the inmates as much as they can but if an officer needs to call for assistance then these guys can de-escalate something.

‘If need be they have the equipment and the training to subdue someone very quickly with minimum force used. There’s minimum disruption to the centre. There’s minimum disruption to the staff.

‘While they’ve got all the gear and look fierce their main role is to de-escalate situations, not inflame them.’

Another security factor is the constant surveillance.  

‘The monitoring here can see virtually every square inch of the facility,’ Governor Heycock says. 

‘The inmates know we’re up here and how quickly we can get down there. They know we’re up here so there’s less likelihood they’ll get up to something they shouldn’t.’

Senior prison psychologist Kara Thomson says the systems at HCC encourage rehabilitation because inmates engage with each other in a fashion more like the outside community and have ‘purpose all the time’ 

‘When they’re locked in a cell 16 hours a day they don’t know what to do with themselves,’ she says. 

‘We’ve got more community-style housing. They get opportunities to establish social roles. 

‘We’ve got less physical barriers in the pods. You’re living with 25 others. There’s not just another person in the cell. We’re getting them up at a reasonable hour. 

‘When people feel purposeful they feel good about themselves. They’re getting a reward for that. They’re getting opportunities to work alongside people. Their day here relates with what a day might be like for a community member.

‘The key to it is we can start to rehabilitate them, they can translate that into the community when they get out.’ 

SCO Campton notes most of the staff at HCC volunteered to be here.

‘The culture in this jail among the staff is a lot different,’ she says. We want to see this succeed.

‘Most of us have been in the system for a little while. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.’

Asked if Hunter Correctional Centre is the future of maximum security prisons in Australia, Governor Heycock says: ‘This is one of the ways’.

‘There is a need for your traditional style jail but if you’re going to rehabilitate people this is the way to go.’

Australia Behind Bars also revealed what life is like inside for female prisoners at women’s jails.

Recently a mother-of-four serving time in prison for her role in a kidnapping has burst into tears while discussing the gaping hole left in her children’s lives.

Brittany has been behind bars at for three months at Dillwynia Correctional Centre, in ‘s northwestern outskirts, after becoming what she described as an ‘unwilling’ driver in an abduction.

One of the activities Darrel does is write about dinosaurs to his young son. ‘I’d rather be in here doing this than doing something else in the yard,’ Darrel said

The mother-of-four, who admits to previously being hooked on ice, was handed a three years and six month sentence and will not be eligible for parole for more than 12 months. 

Sadly, Brittany says her children don’t visit her in jail as it’s ‘not a good place’. 

At Dillwynia, prison officers also revealed the extraordinary lengths the female inmates go to in order to smuggle contraband into their cells – including mobile phones. 

Corrections officers at a NSW jail have described the extreme lengths some prisoners go to in order to hide contraband such as mobile phones (pictured, Ellouise from Dillwynia Correctional Centre)

Fathers in custody are being encouraged to bond with their children to try and prevent them from following them into a life of crime at Wellington Correctional Facility (pictured) 

Male and female prisoners have long used smuggled mobile phones inside prisons to continue operating ‘businesses’ including illegal activities even though they are incarcerated.

Notorious Brothers 4 Life founder Bassam Hamzy infamously made up to 450 calls a day from a secret mobile phone until he was sprung by prison authorities.

Lynne, a senior member of the immediate response team at Dillwynia, shared graphic insights from her 20 years as a prisoner officer into how mobile phones and other contraband are smuggled in.

She said accomplices outside prisons get as close to walls and fences as possible and throw banned items over in the hope that inmates will find retrieve them.

But first they must hide the items so guards don’t find them.

Lynne said men tend to smuggle illegal items into their cells hidden between their buttocks.

But women often hide contraband in their vaginas, partly because cavity searches are not legal.

In her long career she had seen female inmates smuggle everything from drugs to phones to ‘coffee cups’ inside themselves.

She even said some inmates refer to the practice as using ‘the hairy handbag’. 

Another member of the corrective services staff at Dillwynia, Ellouise, found a latex glove and string during a room search, which she said the prisoners used in the process. 

‘Some of the girls use the tips of the glove with some string to make a makeshift tampon almost [and use them to] wrap syringes or drugs or other things up in it, in tissue, then [insert] it, then they can retrieve it with the string,’ she said.

‘A lot of girls are really good at holding that in there… a lot of times it doesn’t just fall out, sometimes it does but not often.’