The first Drug War Freedom Ride


Accommodated in Bathurst

The gate of the Bathurst Jail is an awe-inspiring piece of Victorian era grandeur. Built in 1888, Bathurst citizens raised money to ensure that their new jail would out impress that one at Goulburn, their provincial city rival. A big sandstone British lion head with a key in its mouth is the key stone of the gate arch and above it is a splendidly carved royal coat of arms surmounted by the letters VR - "Victoria Regina".

Jails have been part of the discourse of Bathurst since its origins as the first colonial administration centre built west of the Blue Mountains, the ring of sandstone mountains and erosion canyons that contained the Sydney harbour settlement to the north, south and west.

Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson, guided by local aboriginals, surveyed a road west in 1812 and there is monument to these three proud real estate developers in Bathurst's central park. They are depicted as huge, upstanding and visionary with a small indigene kneeling before them, shading his eyes and looking westward.

The slave labour of colonial convicts built the road over the Blue Mountains. On our way south from Cessnock we had followed another slave built road, the Great North Road which crossed the sandstone ranges to the north. Still unsealed and very much a back road these days, it was once the only road to the Hunter Valley settlements. Cooperative convicts could get comfortable jobs and lead comfortable lives on farms. Intractables ended up on road gangs and the cruelty of the overseers was notorious.

Once the slave labour of the convicts had built the Great Western road there was a land hungry rush to settle the west. A queue formed at the Penrith end waiting for the road to open. A queue was created at the other end by the orders of the New South Wales colonial government which forbade settlers from crossing the Macquarie River at Bathurst until the town had been surveyed and a court house and a jail (its first) built.

Bathurst Jail is infamous in the annals of Australian jail history for the so-called "Bathurst Batterings", the riots of 1970 and 74. Starting with the chapel, in 1974 prisoners burned the guts out of the jail and it was closed for seven years. This led to the Nagle Royal Commission and the last round of prison reform in NSW.

As soon as we arrived we made an appointment to meet with the Governor to negotiate the action, our so-called Picnics for the Families of Drug War prisoners, the next Sunday. The Governor, Sue Wye, rang back within minutes and invited us to come right on over.

Sue, 5 foot two and eyes of blue, greeted us respectfully and ushered us into her huge office. On the wall and behind glass was a big nickel-plated ring holding three big nickel-plated keys. "Ceremonial", Sue explained. In the foyer and behind glass were large aerial photographs of the gutted, still-smouldering jail of 1974.

She had been expecting us and had read reports of the Cessnock action. "Brett Anthony Collins", she intoned smiling ruefully and referring to our prison legend comrade and his arrest outside Cessnock jail the previous Sunday. "A fellow country man, I believe."

Sue Wye was part of the same 70s wave of New Zealander emigration that had brought Brett to Australian shores. Sue had been a trained nurse but had taken a job in NSW prisons for a change. Now she was sitting in a top job and I took this background career information to convey that she was neither of the breed nor the culture of the prison officers who had brought on the riots of 1970 and 74.

Everything about Sue spoke of competence and respect. She had notified the officers we would be needing to deal with and summonsed them to meet us. Acting Deputy Superintendent Mick Moriarty and Intell Officer John O'Shea entered smiling and saluting. Later when we walked the site together I saw Sue receive other salutes and smiles. Each time she acknowledged the salute, smiled and thanked the officer.

Here was a well-managed jail and even the two prisoners we met on this fine winter's day seemed happy. They were on a work detail outside the walls when St John Pennington and I had stopped them to ask directions to the Governor's office. Boys about 19 years old, they were interested in our mission and happily talked about drugs in jail. Cannabis, they said, would be the preferred recreational drug of most inmates. Not dangerous like the injecting drugs that are always a presence in jails, No HIV risk and a better vibes as well. "Ought to be legal," they said, and shrugged hopelessly in the direction of the Governor's office.

Sue was happy to talk about her jail which had 430 inmates, 125 of whom minimum security, 40 on periodic detention, 13 on remand and unconvicted, 13 potential suicides were held in an acute crisis centre and the remainder (231) were maximum-security prisoners. Of the Drug War prisoners she said it was difficult to estimate. Most of her prisoners were Aboriginal and although drugs, particularly alcohol, were contributing factors, their offences were most often related to domestic violence.

However, she had recently held on remand, 16 people arrested in a major 'drug ring' bust in Bathurst the previous week.

The action for the Sunday was quickly negotiated. Sue had thought about our needs in advance and suggested how and where best they could be provided for. Easy. Her cooperation so disarmed me that the probing questions I had meant to ask about the administration of drug war prisoners were put aside and forgotten by my eager to belong, and not offend, mammal brain.

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My next meeting in Bathurst was with Professor Bill Blakie from the School of Communications at Charles Sturt University. His school includes a Theatre and Media stream and has produced some wonderful a street performers and road shows. Circus Monoxide, for example, was born here.

In common Bill and I share grey hair, a passion for outdoor performance and an admiration for the leading teachers and path finders in this field, John Fox and Sue Gill of the Ulverston, England, and their community arts group, Welfare State International. The previous October Bill had arranged for John and Sue to come to Australia and lead a 5 day workshop on the "art of celebration" as in service training for 250 NSW arts and drama teachers. Bill got me in too as one of the tutors.

The Freedom Ride had arrived unannounced at Charles Sturt University but Bill greeted me with a warm hug and quickly set us up with an office, telephone line and hot showers and made his set building workshop available to us. He invited me to do a Freedom Ride presentation to his "Theatre and Cultural Action" class later that afternoon.

Sixteen students crowded into our temporary new office to watch the slide show that Cannabis Dave has set up in his computer. There was serious gender imbalance here only one of the sixteen students was male. The rest were bright young women, juicy and alive from the theatre work they shared. My 58th birthday was coming up next day and, along with "if I had my time again .." type thoughts, I registered that I knew where to go if I was ever again to be young man in search of pussy heaven.

Bill told me later that gender imbalance is a general feature of CSU where 76% of students are female and that few young men who want to do his Theatre and Media course get matriculation scores high enough to qualify for entry. The contrasting gender imbalance of our jails - 95% men - echoed for me.

Bill's Theatre and Cultural Action course was based on the work and theory of Paola Freire. This is what Bill was teaching that day. Act to add to human dignity. If one's actions diminish the dignity of you or others, desist. Try something different. Act today so that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

The students were enchanted and inspired by the images and stories of the Freedom Ride. They didn't want a new slave class either. "Want to join us in some cultural action?" I asked. "Yes, please" and we devoted the rest of the lecture time to planning another Bathurst Jail burning.

How to publicise? Brainstorming suggested setting up the computer slide show at the Union that night where the legendary Sydney band, Mental As Anything, was giving a performance. They were also celebrating the opening of an exhibition in the Bathurst Art Gallery of the visual art of Mental's guitarist and singer, Reg Mombassa.

So it was that Jab and Cannabis Dave entertained CSU students with tall tales and true of the Freedom Ride and shared a joint with culture heroes.

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We Freedom Riders have a penchant for mountain tops. Like beacons we set up camp and lit our fire on Mount Panorama, the mountain that overlooks Bathurst from the west and is the site of the NSW's premier motor bike and car race track.

This mountain was also the site of another set of riots that gave Bathurst national notoriety - the Easter Bike Race riots of 1981-5.

The Easter bike races on Mt Panorama began in the 1930s as biker camp out, "clubman" affairs. From the early1960s motor bike enthusiasts became identified and amplified in the media as a deviant culture (the Hells Angels image) and conflict between police and bikies ("police baiting") became institutionalised ritualised even. Each Easter young men of mostly working class origins headed for Bathurst expecting to contest with police what was acceptable behaviour in public space. Each Easter 300 or so police (also young men of mostly working class origin) rostered on for overtime at Bathurst knowing they would be contesting space with bikers who had no respect for them.

The Police used the "fact" of the annual riots to create and train the Tactical Response Group and arm it with the latest in US crowd suppression technology. In Easter 1985 the TRG had set themselves up in a wire enclosure in the middle of the McPhilamy camping area, where we had set up our beacon. On Easter Saturday night 1985 they sallied forth in formation into the beer soaked crowd of young males with shields and batons, bashing and arresting the tardy, and retreating again on whistle call. It was textbook crowd suppression, totally crazy and counter productive.

The more the TRG harassed the crowd the more violence came back to them from the crowd. The police compound became besieged and the police inside were in great danger from flying bricks and petrol bombs. The media, of course, reported the events from the police side of the wire and made a big to-do about the burning of one of the Channel Seven news car, which had been left parked outside the enclosure. (The media crew were reported to have invited the burning: "Just let us get our cameras out first, boys" )

The story would have remained another shock-horror tale of moral degeneration except that the predicability of the riots allowed academics from the then Mitchell College of Advanced Education (Chris Culleen, Mark Findlay, Rob Lynch and Vernon Tupper) to set up a social research project. For the first time ever, a riot was documented from the inside of the crowd.

Although the action of the police and negative publicity eventually succeeded in closing down the Easter bike races in Bathurst, the book of Culleen et al - Dynamics of Collective Conflict: Riots at the Bathurst Bike Races (The Law Book Company 1989) - became a police training manual on how NOT to manage crowds and has been a great background influence on event management planning ever since - the Sydney Olympic Games included.

For example when the Victorian Tourism Commission decided to fill the vacuum left by the death of the Bathurst Bike races - an event which had never gathered a crowd greater than 60,000 - and make Easter the occasion of a Motor Cycle Grand Prix at Philip Island, the Victorian police read the book and worked in close collaboration with the motor cycle clubs to plan and prepare for the event. The first Motorcycle Grand Prix of 1988 attracted 400,000 punters and bikers were given a police escort to travel en masse from Melbourne a win-win for all concerned.

Now negotiation and peace making are the rule when it comes to events and police.

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The Duty Officer of the Bathurst Police Station starts shift at 6.30 am. So after watching the sun come up on the vast lake of mist that covered the Macquarie valley and the city, I descended from the mountain into the fog to negotiate the burning of a cardboard jail which I had already notified local media would take place outside the Bathurst Court house at 1 pm that day.

Inspector Gary Megay's handshake was warm but his eyes, like my mountain frosted hands, were cold. His eyes made it clear that he could be a hard man and he began by telling me about the Summary Offences Act and the requirement for seven days notice for public gatherings. He had heard reports of the Cessnock action too.

Early mornings are sadana time for me and, this morning, the combination of my mediation and prayer routine with the big picture sunrise had left me tremulous, vulnerable and empty. Futility was dragging its feet and only half a step behind me. The hardness of Inspector Megay's eyes made me aware of contraction around my heart. Breathing into it and sitting forward to better receive him, I noticed his attitude soften.

He began to suggest solutions to the problems he could see arising from a few people gathering to burn a cardboard jail on a footpath. Very soon he had it all worked out for me. "Check with the Council. Have a fire extinguisher and water on hand."

Then Gary Megay began to talk about his passion, which was criminology and sociology. He had done tertiary studies and was about to undertake a master's degree. "Prisons do not deter crime," he told me. "Crime is either planned or opportunistic. Planned crime plans not to be caught and opportunistic criminals by definition do not take into account consequences of their actions. Either way, the fear of prisons is not in the equation."

Of the recent Drug War battle fought to disrupt heroin distribution in Bathurst, he spoke of his concern about the increasing number of drug driven armed (knives and blood filled syringes) hold ups of motels and late night servos. The under cover operation that had led to the arrest of 16 people in a heroin distribution network would have no lasting impact on heroin use and distribution in Bathurst. It was at best a pre-Olympics broom operation.

Policing is politics and the politics of the War on Drugs requires these shows of 'pro-active' policing. The election cycle limits the vision and interest of our political leaders to three years and there are no short time fixes for the heroin plague.

Of jails he said he had been called to investigate a number of murders (prisoners killing other prisoners) at the Lithgow maximum security jail up the road. And so that I might understand better about the 1970 and 74 Bathurst prison riots, he recommended I read a book, "The State of the Prison a critique of reform" by a former lecturer of his, Mark Findlay.

At 8.30 am when the Bathurst City Council opened its doors for business I went to the front counter and asked to speak to someone about burning cardboard jails on footpaths. The counter clerk looked at me quizzically and went away to get advice. When he returned he said: "There is no way the Council would approve of such a thing, don't even bother to ask."

So I didn't it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission especially if one does not carry public liability insurance. Free speech, we Freedom Riders maintain, in order to be free, does not require the services of insurance brokers and lawyers.

Then I hurried back to the Theatre and Media school and began cutting cardboard to represent in miniature (1.4 m by 1 m) the Victorian grandeur of the Bathurst Jail gate. Jab, Dave and John came down from the mountain and went ahead to butterfly the rig outside the court house. Like the jail the Bathurst Court house is Victorian era magnificence with rounded wings containing a large court yard behind an iron picket fence and a great copper covered dome over the court itself. With our flags and banners set before it, again our action had splendid vision.

When I arrived there were eight CSU students gathered to witness the action and news cameras from the two regional TV channels. We set the cardboard jail on a stand in front of the court house gate and got the students to hold our banners. I gave a drug war rap over our PA and invited the students to speak. "Use your big theatre voices", I urged.

One young woman with rings piercing in her eyebrow and exposed navel seized the opportunity. She spoke of the futility of the Drug War and thanked us Freedom Riders for the inspiration we had given her to speak out.

Just as she finished speaking Inspector Megay drove up. The Tamworth experience ringing in my head, I gave her the matches and urged her to set fire to it at once. Inspector Megay smiled with delight at my representation of the Bathurst Jail gate and his smile got broader when I pointed to the extinguisher which I had hooked off the wall from the Theatre and Media set building workshop.

"The burning of the Bathurst jail in 1974 set in train major reforms of prisons in NSW," I intoned on the PA. "We are burning the Bathurst jail again today to signal we want another wave of prison reforms. We want to empty them of drug offenders and close them down."

The cameras whirred as the jail burned wings first, the door in the gate the last to turn to ashes.

"Did you bring a broom?" Gary Megay asked. I nodded. "You have made your point well", he said, shook my hand and drove off, both of us more dignified by our mutual respect.

This had been the perfect action. A fine sunny day, beautiful vision, no contention, clear message and excellent media coverage it became lead news story on TV and we got ABC regional radio as well. Cultural action in action and the students were inspired and voluble in their praise and gratitude.

My birthday too and this my celebration - passion in full flower, seeds being planted.

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Saturday morning found the Freedom Riders moving slowly together and the weary from the road. It was as if we had run out of charge and to underline it, Peacebus.com's battery died and "Happy Wheels" had to tow it to get it started.

Mick Moriarty, the Deputy Superintendent, rang to ask where we were. Late for a date. On site he and John O'Shea greeted us cheerily and directed us to the set up place.

But even then the butterfly took us two hours. Many cups of tea and much conflict resolution was needed in regard to our itinerary and our relationship with Justice Action for the Peacebus.com hobbits were still anxious that Brett's fiery energy would bring the heat onto us. Brett Collins had rung that morning to wish us well.

When the set up was complete we lit a fire in our brazier with wood from a demolished fence that Mick said it was okay to use.

The site was at the minimum security end of the jail with excellent exposure to the traffic on the Great Western highway. We got lots of toots from passing cars but passing families visiting drug war prisoners were few. Why so few visitors on this fine sunny day?

A theory advanced by our hosts was that the prisoners, aware of the sniffer dogs that our presence causes to be rostered on, had made telephone calls and advised their loved ones not to put themselves at risk of being searched.

So we sat about the fire and I read aloud Mark Findlay's account of the Bathurst riots, an account taken from the evidence and findings of the Nagle Royal Commission.

In a tower above us, a prison officer observed us with binoculars and camera. I guessed that this would have been one of the four towers from which the warders fired .22 rifles indiscriminately into the crowd of prisoners trapped in the yards after the 1974 fire. Twenty were wounded, one made paraplegic. I could imagine the terror of being exposed to such random and wanton vengeance.

Inspector Gary Megay came by to check on our situation and smiled some more to see us stuck into the book he had recommended.

The story of the riots is a tragedy brought on by the brutality, lying, denial and cover ups of the Department of Corrective Services. Back in 1970 Australian society was in upheaval over the Vietnam war. A protester held in jail for political action, witnessed prisoner bashings in Long Bay jail and on release, went public. George Petersen, Labor Member for Illawarra and proclaimed representative of the working class, read the report into the Hansard and prison reform entered the agenda of the Sydney Left.

On 16 October 1970, 150 prisoners at Bathurst jail staged a peaceful 'sit-in' just like we anti-war protestors were doing outside. The protesters submitted 17 demands on such things as better food, permission to sit in the exercise yards, improved medical treatment, better hair cuts and so on. The prisoners returned to their cells expecting to that there would be further negotiations with the Commissioner of Corrective Services who was expected to visit the jail next day.

Instead next day Commissioner McGeechan ordered armed guards in civilian clothes to man the towers and the prisoners felt betrayed. Some younger prisoners entered C wing scuffled with wardens and, locked in, began wrecking the building from the inside.

Negotiations and the undertaking that there would be no 'biff' led to the prisoners returning to their cells. But the next morning the prison officers paraded at 7 am and, led by the Superintendent Mr Pallott, went from cell to cell systematically beating all the prisoners with batons. Despite the news reporting of the riots and the biff, the Department went into cover up and denial, no reforms were made, prisoner discontent festered and prison officer morale plummeted.

In 1974 the chickens came home to roost. Mr Pallott's tyrannous rule in Bathurst jail had become even more tyrannous and prisoner conditions had worsened. Early in the afternoon on 3 February 1974 a riot was ignited when a fire bomb was thrown in the chapel where prisoners were watching a movie. The jail was trashed and for 2 hours riot prevailed. At 3.30 pm prison officers began firing at prisoners in the yards in direct contravention of orders.

In a final act of savagery, 150 prison officers in riot gear attacked with tear gas and batons 70 prisoners contained in a yard with no possibility of escape. The prison officers formed up in two lines and for 20 minutes assaulted prisoners as they ran the gauntlet.

The riots at Bathurst jail led to the Nagle Royal Commission, the first major public investigation into the secret world of prison practice in over 30 years.

Justice Nagle's investigation of the institutionalised brutality directed to so-called intractable prisoners at Grafton and Kattingal jails also revealed horror practices such as the 'reception biff'. Prisoners were delivered to Grafton by the Special Operations Division (the 'SOD squad' in which the present Assistant Commissioner, Mr Woodham, served) knowing (just as Commissioner Woodham did) they were to be beaten. Stripped and with arms handcuffed to their sides, up to six prison officers would beat each arriving prisoner into unconsciousness with batons. Beatings, brutality and savagery were the daily regime of Grafton.

Although the Nagle Commission named 30 prison officers for violence against Bathurst prisoners, none were ever prosecuted. By contrast the Department of Corrective Services took criminal action against scores of prisoners for charges ranging form assault to malicious damage of prison property.

The prison officers went on strike, resisted and resented the reform recommendations of the Nagle report. Politicians always faint of heart lost interest. Yet the truth witnessed by Justice Nagle did produce reforms and a change, a re-education and re-humanising, of prison officer culture. A truth clearly spoken has a way of doing that, like the constant dripping of water wears away a rock.

Out of respect to Deputy Superintendent Mick Moriarty I rang him on his mobile phone to warn of my intention to use the PA and speak to the prisoners through the wire. He had no problem about it and in fact he positioned himself to hear my Drug War rap. I know that because at the end of the day before Mick knocked off he came to shake my hand and recommend a book "The Politics of Heroin" by McCoy a documentation of the CIA's involvement in the global heroin trade.

At 4 pm John O'Shea came by to say all the prisoners were now in their cells and we may as well pack up."An early lock down?" we asked, concerned that our presence was causing inmates grief. No. Contrary to the recommendations of Justice Nagle, prisons have gone back to limiting out-of-cell time to a 6 am to 4 pm routine. It had to do with staff shortages and Olympic Games cut backs. Sports fascism rules even in prisons

The evening cold was settling upon us when my phone rang with an invitation to dinner and showers. We Freedom Ride hobbits rushed to bring in our rig and take the offer of succour, ever eager to move towards kindness. So we are blessed.

May all the inmates in Bathurst jail be offered kindness too.

Graeme Dunstan
6 August 2000

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