The first Drug War Freedom Ride

Justice Action at Cessnock

Brett Collins set off up the road into the Cessnock Correction Centre in his van with an industrial-strength, hand-held megaphone and one companion and witness, Louisiana, a vision impaired 15 year old girl. His departure had all the drama and premonition of a man off to meet his destiny.

Brett is the managing director of Breakout Press, driving force behind the Sydney based prisoner action group, Justice Action, and a legend in NSW jails. As a young father and Wollongong university student he had been arrested as an accessory to an armed hold-up in which a police officer had been shot, hand cuffed to a chair and beaten throughout a night by the investigating police, verballed and convicted and sentenced to 17 years jail.

Long sessions of solitary confinement and many more bashings in jail had quelled neither his great spirit nor his burning sense of injustice. A boxer with a fast eye, wit and grit, his presence signals he will always give as good as he gets and never give up. After a time - of which he had plenty - the prison officers, he told me, decided negotiation with Brett was more productive than intimidation and Brett became a leader of prisoners on the inside until his release in the early 1980s. He has been an active campaigner for prisoner rights ever since.

On Sunday 30 July, we Freedom Riders set up our butterfly at the cattle grid that marked the jail property line. The jail buildings were 300 meters way and out of sight. The agreement we had struck with the police Duty Officer, Inspector Gordon Gorton, and the Prison Governor, Kevin Mitchensen, (the latter by phone) was that they would not hassle us if we did not to cross that line. Bearing witness at boundaries is what we do and we were happy to comply. As aficionados of chaos theory know, liminal zones are where strange and wonderful patterns are produced.

We parked by the road near the gate and our butterfly made the approach to the jail an avenue of colour. We set up our fire and picnic tables and made ourselves at home, greeting the visiting families and friends of the prisoners with leaflets and jumping aside when the cars of the prison officers came roaring through.

It was a busy day for prisoner visits. Cessnock jail holds about 450 prisoners (all men), 100 of who are in maximum security, and another 100 who are unconvicted. By our estimate, 300 of those prisoners would be with their friends and families today except for the drug prohibition laws.

The Freedom Ride had been planned in partnership with Justice Action and this was the first occasion when Justice Action personnel were actually on the ground with the Freedom Riders. Brett had mustered seven to drive the 200 km north from Sydney on that fine sunny morning. They came bearing bountiful food and beer and soon we had a convivial picnic feast happening.

We were also joined by Lucy Charlesworth, editor of the webzine, Weed Witches, and her partner Kevin, who had driven from Wingham 175 km in the north east for the action.

Brett had told us Freedom Riders that he had spoken to the Cessnock jail Governor the previous day and had arranged visiting access to a number of minimum-security prisoners. He had wanted us to accompany him but we had declined, sticking to our agreement.

Whereas we were at ease with our picnic, the prison officers revealed themselves to be very much on edge, fearing that we might stir up false hopes of freedom amongst the inmates and, even worse, pass cannabis onto them. Extra staff and sniffer dogs had been rostered for the day.

To his personal cost, a friend of the Freedom Ride had discovered this. Stephen Murphy (alias Conesmoker) met us at the Nimbin Mardi Grass and, after following our adventures on the web, he had come to join the action. We were setting up when he arrived so he went on by into the visitor reception where his car was searched by prison officers and a sniffer dog. A 5 gram bag of cannabis (his personal supply) was found and Senior Constable Officer Colin Sykes confiscated it and wrote him a ticket under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act, to wit possessing a prohibited drug.

Conesmoker is 25 years old, his head was a bristle cut and his eyes steady and clear. I apologised for not warning him of the agreement and the warnings we had had from the prison officers. But he was not deterred, to the contrary, more resolved, in the struggle to end the Drug War.

After Brett's van went around a bend and out of our sight, we could hear him spruiking to the prisoners through the razor wire. His progress had been marked by the sound of the PA. But now it was replaced by Brett's loud cries of pain and shouts for help. An exiting car of prisoner visitors stopped to tell us that ten prison officers were holding Brett on the ground, assaulting him and applying handcuffs. Panic in the camp.

Kilty O'Gorman, 18 year old Justice Action organiser and veteran of many street actions, was alarmed and called for us to go help him. Four of the JA people rallied to her urgent call and Lucy took her video camera along. But we Freedom Riders demurred, choosing rather to stick to our boundary agreement. Division in the ranks.

The frantic rescue mission straggled up the hill only to be confronted by more prison officers threatening arrest if they did not leave the jail property. Again there was much shouting. Kilty returned and pulled out her mobile phone and dialled up first her mother, the Honourable Lee Rhiannon, member of the NSW Legislative Council, and then her Sydney media contacts.

To get more information, I got on the blower too. First I rang the prison and asked for Governor Mitchensen. I was told he had knocked off, so I asked for the Deputy. I was urgent for information but the prison officer on the other end was uncooperative and insolent. He refused to give me the name of the Deputy and left me hanging.

Next I rang the Maitland Police and learned that the Inspector Gordon had also knocked off. So much for our carefully planned liaison. But we did learn that a paddy wagon had been dispatched to the jail. I said we wanted to speak with them when they arrived. I cannot be sure that they officers in the paddy wagon got this message for they drove aggressively towards the cattle grid where I stood blocking the road, stopping at the last moment with their vehicle bumper against my shin.

I told them that we were concerned for the safety of our comrade, that we could hear his cries of pain and that we wanted information about his welfare as soon as possible. The officer promised to come back and tell us as soon as possible.

Every exiting visitor car stopped to give us an update on Brett's situation. From this we understood from this information that six prison officers were holding him and the struggle was ongoing.

Then I too rang media contacts and gave them the number of the jail to get further information. Visibility is the dread of most public servants, prison officers in particular.

After about 10 minutes Louisiana was escorted back to our camp, upset and hysterical. "I saw it all," she kept saying. We wondered at the limits of her acuity but put her on the PA none-the-less to tell her story to everyone who would listen. She was particularly upset by the aggressive attitude of the prison officers and the verbal abuse she had received. "They called me a drug addict," she said.

Her escort, SPO Colin Sykes was conciliatory and a little embarrassed, wanting information for the incident report he had been assigned to prepare. Louisiana got a lot of attention that day and, like most teenagers, she revelled in it.

The police officers returned after 30 minutes and approached us in a conciliatory manner as well they might for there were 20 people gathered around that the cattle grid and it was the only exit. They told us they had arrested Brett on two charges trespass on prison property and assault of a prison officer and they intended to take him to Maitland Police Station where he would be charged and released on self recognisance to appear in Cessnock Court in three weeks time to answer the charges.

"But you only have prison officers evidence for the assault," I queried. "I saw tooth marks on a prison officer's finger", the constable replied. Not like boxer Brett to bite, I thought.

We cheered and shouted as the paddy wagon holding Brett went through our ranks and then settled back to make a cardboard jail and enjoy the afternoon. Success! Noticed in Cessnock! Another good days work of witness. That night the Freedom Ride became news on ABC regional radio and a page 5 photo story next morning in the Newcastle Herald.

Brett and his JA fetchers arrived back after sunset and he was jubilant and raving manic. His stash had been too carefully stashed and it was a little while before we could sit him down and hear the story and even then the story came out via many detours.

As Brett told it he was spruiking and prison officers came to him in two cars and blocked his progress. They demanded he leave the vehicle so that it could be searched. But push soon changed to shove. The prison officers were hyped up and they went into prisoner suppression mode just like they do daily behind the bars. According to Brett at no time did they announce their intention to arrest nor did they name the charges.

Brett told the story of the struggle with relish for he had been in these tussles before. The more they grappled with him and twisted his arms and held him down, the more he yelled, the more he provoked them. In mid struggle he would lower his voice and egg them on: "You're piss weak. Look I can still move."

He counted six prison officers holding him, strangling him and driving his face in to the loose soil of a garden bed. "I can still breathe", he chortled. If there was any anxiety in Brett, it was the fear that they would plant drugs in his vehicle, which he had been careful to clear of any offending substances before his departure.

He demanded to witness the search. The prison officers used a video camera to record it. No drugs were found.

"You are in deep shit now", he said pointing to the bloody marks left by the hand cuffs. "Improper arrest and you have assaulted me and left marks to show it." Mountainous paper work coming.

The officer whom he addressed put his face close to Brett's and his knuckle in his own mouth, bit it hard and drew blood. "We will see about that", he said. Playing Brett at his own game.

Another description I hear for our path of bearing witness is: "Taking it up to them". It is about direct, in your face, and respectful challenge to people exercising authority which perpetuates injustice. People tell me they admire this courage in me and I admire it in Brett for he has the courage to take it into physical encounter with prison officers, people for whom brutality is an occupation and brutalisation an occupational hazard.

After telling his story, Brett brought out and lit the peace candle that had been first lit at the Vancouver International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) which he had attended last May. We then stood together Brett and I, comrades, and witnessed the burning of the cardboard jail which we sat on the low brick wall that held the sign "Cessnock Correctional Centre".

One of the JA crew, out of concern that it would bring prison officers down on our necks, knocked the still burning cardboard to the ground where it set off a grass fire. The Freedom Riders quickly contained the burn but Brett, flailing a bag and trying to help, set it off again.

The Freedom Ride crew had been more than a little disconcerted by the provocative protest style of JA and this incident seemed to sum it up in metaphor. Jab and Dave Cannabis muttered darkly about poly-drug users.

My perspective is that we bear peaceful witness to all that comes into the space we create. We negotiate the boundaries, we put up our banners, light our fire, speak our truth .. and notice what is drawn forth. Brett Collins had something to say that day about the way prisons brutalise both the jailed and the jailers.

After most of the JA crew had departed, Brett sat with us around our fire till late talking, talking, and talking. We managed to get some business done and come to some agreements. But the best thing that Brett shared with us was a processional hug, which he had shared at ICOPA. Brett held his heart against mine and I felt it huge and open.


Next day we spent in Maitland and finally removed the defect notice from "Happy Wheels" which is now free to travel public roads again. We breakfasted in the car park of the Maitland Courthouse and watched the prisoner wagon come in. The prison guards watched as warily as we watched them. We noticed that they called a police wagon to be on hand before they drove out again from the prisoner transfer cage.

Our visibility and notoriety brought many visitors. People facing charges that day came to talk to us and share their stories of injustice. Court reporters came too.

Maitland is a coal town that has seen epic union battles and coalmines boom and bust. The town has impressive brick and stucco buildings of the Victorian era and is surrounded by suburbs of weatherboard workers cottages. The once proud civic buildings are now mostly empty (asbestos). The mechanisation of coal production (huge open pits replacing underground mining) has created a great pool of enduring poverty in the district.

Maitland has a long established cannabis culture and many people expressed their support for our cause. We wished we could have stayed longer to meet more friends. Tourism promotes the area now as a place of "wines, mines and people" but once hemp production was part of the colonial life of the Hunter Valley and until the 1960's, cannabis grew wild along the banks of the Hunter River.

Prohibition historian, John Jiggens, disputes the colonial origins of the Hunter River cannabis, suggesting a more likely source was seed left by US soldiers who trained at the huge WWII army barracks around Singleton, just up the road. I fantasise that the Johnny Hempseed was a homesick jazz musician GI from New Orleans.

When cannabis prohibition arrived in this land, prompted by a high level delegation from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, it was heralded with headlines in the Sydney sensationalist press of the time with: "Sex Drug Grows Wild at Maitland". What an invitation to become a cannabis user! My Aquarian comrade, Paul Joseph, a Newcastle boy, fondly recall taking train rides out to Maitland, stuffing duffle bags with the free herb and taking it back to fuel the music making sessions of the fledgling Newcastle Folk Club.

Now cannabis growing is a big indoor business. Jason, proprietor of the local hydroponics shop, Under Lights, told us that his business was booming and he was a small end of the local hydroponic supply market. Typically his customers choose is a small closet set up which can grow about three plants at a time, plants that, though small, flower in 6 weeks. One closet would provide family use, and three, a nice little income supplement.

Jason supplemented the income of the Freedom Ride with a cheque for $100 and invited us to set up our cyber office in his back room. Thank you Jason


One of the deserted buildings of Maitland is its infamous jail, which was de-commissioned 5 years ago and now serves as a grim museum.

We went visiting, put our banners up on the gate and took the guided tour. Cannabis Dave rolled a spliff and we lit up in the reception area. The Newcastle Herald of that morning had quoted me as saying: "By the time we finish all jails will be museums."

Maitland jail's 10 metre high walls and towers are razor wire topped and they mark out an acre of cruelty beside the East Maitland rail station. Convicts had been hanged under the arch of its main gate and oppression and misery still broods there, 150 years of state sanctioned cruelty and torture.

Our guides told us that Maitland jail had been established in 1840, when Maitland was settled as a convict town and convict labour was employed to build the roads and civic infrastructure including the first stage of the prison. The Governors of the colony of New South Wales were men of the Enlightenment who believed in the possibility of enlightened good government. For these men, the construction of a court house and a jail was essential to the planning of a new colonial towns and the settlement of a new region. Civilisation is defined as the presence of the rule of law and jails.

When Maitland jail was built, the idea of prison as an essential part of civil government was less than 50 years old.

Cold air poured out upon as we opened the door and entered the maximum security A block. It was three stories of tiny stone walled cells, bolted steel doors and steel mesh floor dividers. Convicted backpacker murderer, Ivan Milat, had been held here till it was closed.

The architecture functions to maximise isolation and segregation and to minimise supervision. Everywhere walls, bars, cages, concrete and locks. The difference between the prison officer's quarters and the prisoner's was that the former had hearths and access to fire for warmth.

Walking through the yards, evolutions in the architecture could be seen, evolutions that in part reflected new technologies and in other parts changing attitudes to prisoner welfare evolutions that eventually put the colonial cruelty of Maitland jail beyond tolerance and renovation.

The last new building was a visitor's area where prisoners and their families could sit at tables together if they were trusted, or in segregation boxes if they were not. The round white tables and their white chairs were bolted to the floor, four chairs to a table. There was a play pen for the toddlers painted out with cartoon characters by some anonymous inmate and a glass walled observation desk for the supervising prison officers. The tables were all bugged, our guides informed us, to record the conversations.

The chairs and bare tables seemed to be having those stilted and guarded conversations still, the heart ache and despair still echoing in the room yet.

Here are some of the graffiti messages on display on the walls of a cage known as the Prisoners Recreation Area.

"If gaols are the answer it must have been a stupid question."

"DOG ALERT. Dog Dog Dog WARNING '(name*)/you dirty fucken/police informer/dog-cunt/die mongrel.' Dog Dog Dog RIP Born of a mutt/Died: very soon"

"Budgie: 4 wing 97 plus nine days/I love him like a brother!/He is trump of all trumps."

"There's no justice. Just us."

Graeme Dunstan
1 August 2000

* I printed the actual name in the first draft that went to our web site, thinking that, being on a museum wall, it was public information. Brett rang me to tell me to remove it at once for the prisoner named was in prison yet and naming him as a dog would endanger his life and/or mine. A learner of prisoner codes, I sent out a retraction at once.

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