The first Drug War Freedom Ride

Lithgow - the Drug War amongst Industrial Ruins

Lithgow (pop 20,000) is near where the old convict built Great Western Road comes down from the sandstone bluffs of the Blue Mountains. The first blast furnace in NSW was built here in 1907 because of the easy access to the seams of coal and lime under the mountains and to the rail link, which followed the road. A fire shaman's triumph, I stood amongst the slag ruins of that old blast furnace and tried to imagine the heat of transformation our ancestors created there.

Australia's first steel and coal industrial city, it is now a city of decay, an industrial ruin. Thanks to economic rationalism and globalisation.

Formerly the NSW Government Railways operated a coalmine here to fuel its steam locomotives and until about 15 years ago the federal government used Lithgow as the centre for the production of munitions. As an army staff cadet in 1960 I remember visiting the Small Arms Factory and marvelling at the acres of state of the art, machine tools, even then working below production capacity.

The Small Arms Factory also subsidised a major apprenticeship training scheme and together with the railway workshops, and the near by power stations (some now moth balled), generations of young men in Lithgow were taught useful trades in manufacturing.

All these tax payer subsidised industries are gone now: the Small Arms Factory is a small arms museum, all its multiple-purpose, machine tools have been broken up for scrap metal, and Lithgow's productive, can-do industrial culture, is dissipated. The local TAFE emphasises white-collar training in business studies and hospitality.

The Lithgow Correctional Centre is now, after local government, the biggest single local employer, and boys in Lithgow, it seems, are offered training and careers opportunities there as either warders or Drug War prisoners.


S oon after arriving in Lithgow, parked and visible in the main street, a young family with a baby in stroller, walking by on their way home from TAFE introduced themselves. They (I will call them Michael and Kate) identified instantly with our cause and without hesitation opened their humble, Housing Commission home to us, freely offering showers, phone line and shelter from the winter winds.

It was as if the Great Spirit that guides our journey for justice wanted us to meet the underclass upon which the incarceration industry preys and get a close-up on lives smashed by the Drug War.

Michael (32) told me he had been kicked out of home at 15 for selling cannabis. When pot was hard to find, in rebellion he had plastered himself with amphetamines and had known raging psychosis. Heroin relieved the rage and he was hooked at first hit. Property crimes done to support his habit and relieve his poverty had got him time in Long Bay and Lithgow.

Kate had a parallel history of abuse, self-inflicted and domestic. Together, Michael and Kate were like a pair of walking wounded supporting each other on a road of many pitfalls. Both were on methadone treatment and, doing best they could, to salvage their lives and raise their young family of two girls, one 5 years old and the other11 months. Twelve months prior another baby had drowned in its bath and the tragedy was raw for them all, the five-year-old in particular.

Michael delighted in our company and his life took new purpose hosting us. He set up an opportunity for the Freedom Riders to present the web strategy to his TAFE computer class. At this Dave Cannabis was magnificent and, moving amongst the monitors, only a swagger stick was missing to complete the picture of Dave as a very modern, rainbow cyber major general.

Michael also helped Jab repair the alternator problem on, fed us with sausages, and introduced us to his fellow low rent friends who brought out the mull and generally made us feel at home.

Michael's backyard was a home to two wrecked cars (one the fortuitous source of the replacement alternator) and a savage part-dingo bitch. Michael the convicted thief lived his life in almost agitated concern about security of his property. And now, as his guests, he was concerned about our property too. "The neighbours, you know", he explained.

Chained up for our safety, the dog ran about in small circles, alternately fawning and snarling, barking and being abused for barking. No doubt it had suffered some domestic violence too. Poor suffering, dangerous thing.

Here was a meditation on the crazy consequences of abuse and deprivation of liberty.


The Lithgow Jail, a Labor Party job creation initiative, was opened in 1990 at a cost of $60 million and it boasts of being the flagship of NSW maximum-security prisons with accommodation for 385 maximum-security prisoners. It was the first maximum-security jail built after the Nagle Commission and the controversial closing, reopening and closing again of Katingal, the prison once known and condemned as "the Tomb".

The Governor Don Rodgers was expecting my call and invited me to a meeting later in the day. He had also invited the local Police Sargent, Callum Currie. Don was a career prison officer of 24 years who had served at Grafton and he mentioned, by way of ice breaking, that he had met a few Nimbin people inside.

Don wanted to be assured we were not coming to incite the prisoners to make trouble. When I assured him we were merely bearing witness and eager to listen and learn about what was going on in regard to prisons and the Drug War, he was happy to give us permission to set up our rig near the visitor's car park about 50 meters from visitor reception. Given that the jail complex covers a huge area and is set well back from the highway, this was a notably cooperative gesture. He also said we would be permitted to visit named prisoners without any need for bookings.

The Picnic for Families of Drug War Prisoners, we agreed, would take place 9 am to 4 pm and I promised not to repeat the Goulburn error of over staying our welcome.

Sgt Currie wanted to assure me that he was a straight down the line copper. No favours to be expected from him and if Don called because any disturbance, he would be siding with the uniformed and enforcing the Summary Offences Act. Anything in particular on your mind? I had to ask. No, he said, just being clear.

On the wall were framed aerial photos of various NSW jails including the restituted Bathurst jail with a garden where the Chapel, burned down in the 1974 riots, used to be. Don brought in an aerial photo of the Lithgow jail to show how vast it was. Each cell is self-contained with shower and toilet he told us and the focus of the wings is an open area comprising of two football ovals and tennis courts. Open space and sport has replaced chapel as a redemptive influence in modern jails.

Brett Collins praises Lithgow for its advance in humane design for prisons "It's the best," he told me. But police I spoke to were less than enthusiastic and pointed to the string of prisoner murders that had taken place there.

In the Lithgow Library I found in back editions of the Lithgow Mercury four small, page-three reports of prisoners stabbed to death by other prisoners. There was something X-Files and eerie about reading these all but forgotten tragedies in the stacks of a run down library. The stories were brief and the facts, tantalising. Two murder victims were Aboriginal, high profile prisoners convicted for separate abductions and rapes of white women in western NSW. Any pattern?

Prison administration is secretive. There is good reason for secrecy protection of prisoners from threats within and from threats without the walls being number one. But it goes much deeper than that. It is a culture of secrecy and it holds many dark secrets. Secretiveness prevents debate and discussion and so the culture of prison officers becomes isolated, self referring and stultified. Local police for example know very little about what is going on inside in regard to assaults and murders. Special squads carry out criminal investigations and they rarely hear the results.


In the Lithgow Library was the 98/99 Annual Report of the NSW Department of Corrective Services. The facts of the continuing crisis of NSW prisons were evident. The NSW Commissioner for Corrective Services, Dr Leo Keliher, reported success in making NSW prisons "safe, secure, fair and humane" in the face of the enormous stress of an 8% increase in the prison population.

About 800 extra prisoners were received that year which is the equivalent of two new $60 million jails. He reported that the jails had less than 1% bed vacancies and in the 32,000 movements of inmates between jails that year, I could imagine this lack of slack would be an administrative nightmare.

Here are some other interesting statistics for the report.

  • Corrections cost NSW taxpayers about $380 million that year.
  • The cost per inmate per day is $177.43 for a maximum-security prisoner, $161.3 for a medium, $129.09 for a minimum.
  • There were 26 deaths in custody that year (noted as a significant increase), comprising 6 murders, 11 suicides, 1 overdose, 6 unknown causes, 2 natural
  • The male prisoner population increased by 12% to 6802, the female prisoner population increased by 23% to 438
  • Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up 1 in 7 males and 1 in 5 females
  • Annual earning of Corrective Services Industries (=slave labour) is $14 million


    We camped at a Lithgow lookout called Hassans Walls in near blizzard conditions. Too wet and windy for a fire, we just hunkered down in our vehicles, Dave grumbling about the madness of choosing such an exposed place. Actually St John had chosen it but he was not there when I arrived, having taken the opportunity to sleep indoors at the family home of a woman friend.

    The Lithgow Duty Officer, Inspector Brian Howard, is a man of happy belly and received me warmly early the next morning. We fell into easy rapport. The previous day I had news that my old, old Dad had suffered a minor stroke and my heart was soft and raw. I was confused about whether or not to quit the Freedom Ride and go to him at once.

    Brian talked about the death of his own father and soon we were grey haired men in father grief. He was genuinely interested in our mission and had heard from Sgt Currie about the meeting the previous day. He wanted to assure me that, although his Sgt could be gruff in uniform, off duty he was engaged in much worthy community service.

    We talked about the Drug War and he recalled his first cannabis briefing in Grafton in the early seventies. The prize exhibit he recalled was a solitary joint, the first most officers had ever seen. My, how things have changed.

    Michael and Kate had given me an underclass view of Lithgow policing and said how tough police were, how disrespectful, how they harassed injecting drug users by setting up surveillance outside the methadone clinic.

    Questioning Inspector Howard about this, he confessed not knowing where the methadone clinic at the new hospital was. But he was genuinely concerned that his officers may have been that indiscrete. He explained that the policing strategy was to target not drug users so much as heroin suppliers and this in response to complaints from neighbours (50 buyers cars a day in a residential street) and in response to property crime.

    Given the fact of the drug laws, this harm reduction approach made sense to me but I knew it would not to Michael and Kate who had been on the receiving end of targeting. For them police relations would always be the pits and this was how they lived distrusting of police and neighbours, who had, on past record, good cause to distrust them. Marginal, barely functional, welfare-dependent but also friends, parents, more humans yearning for love and dignity.


    The Lithgow Picnic for Families of Drug War Prisoners began with me alone at 9 am and in cold winds that blasted over the open grounds of the jail. Two prison officers came to meet me and define the boundaries. Soon after Sgt Callum Currie drove up in a 4WD wagon all covered in mud. It had been a long night for Callum who been searching for a bunch of boy scouts marooned by bad weather in a nearby National Park.

    We talked about community service and community policing. I told him of the success of Sgt Neville Plush in Nimbin and how much love and support he gets and how different that was to the corrupt crew who occupied the Nimbin Police Station before Inspector Charlie Sanderson took over as Lismore Area Commander. "Community is the eyes and ears of policing," said Callum. Later Callum came by again because he was interested in the progress of the cardboard jail. arrived at 10.30 am with Kate, Michael and kids. Michael set off with a hand saw to bring in firewood and light our fire. Jab and Dave valiantly applied themselves to rigging in the wind. Bamboo poles broke, star pickets layed themselves down in absolute surrender, and they did best they could. Best we can, has been modis operanti of the Freedom Ride. We are all frail and fumbling humans and, in the midst of chaos and confusion, and in the face of Fate the annihilator, we do best we can.

    The Justice Action crew rolled in from Sydney tooting their horns at about noon and with them came a bus crew from the Katoomba Environment and Social Justice Centre. In all we were six vehicles, 20 adults, 4 kids, three dogs including Che, Brett's 18 month old Doberman. More bodies than at any previous action - a growing movement!

    Che, cramped up for over 4 hours in transit, leapt out of Brett's van and bounded off to explore the prison grounds. She loped effortlessly across the lawns and, beautiful to behold, we all stopped and followed her passage with smiling eyes. She ran with the wind, ran at whim, ran free. Joyfully she explored the visitor reception and other gates, the lake, the ducks, the goal posts and the bushes for 100 meters in every direction.

    Within two minutes prison officers drove up to ask us to restrain Che for fear that she might distract or disturb their sniffer dogs. Yes, I said and they drove off. Brett however did not restrain Che at once. I attempted out my Protestant commitment to agreements made, to hold her for a few minutes before she bounded off again. But Che seemed to get the message and after one more run, restrained herself, staying closer to our picnic and away from the prison.

    Brett had been organising the expedition for hours and having greeted all the Freedom Riders with generous hugs, he started to organise people to go visit prisoners on a list he had prepared.

    Just then Callum came by again and I introduced him to Brett and others. In the midst of organising and with so many new faces and names, it was an awkward time. Brett, in full manic flight, went up to Callum and told him if he had no cause to be present then please leave because he was making people uncomfortable.

    Jab snapped at this and fixed Brett with fierce eyes: "Brett, go now visit your inmates" he ordered. Okay, said Brett who backed off at once. But Callum was stung and turned away muttering about trouble makers. Badges and uniforms come with responsibilities, powers and social costs

    I tagged along to go visiting, last of the crew to enter the visitor reception area, which looked like the transit lounge of bus station.

    But first we were searched for drugs. Having got no response from the dog at Goulburn to the accumulated fairy dust of ganga associated with the Freedom Ride lifestyle, we decided to be more direct. Dave Cannabis sacrificed a nice bud for science when he rubbed it vigorously on my right boot. I was stood in the middle of a bare brick walled room and a young woman officer recited the warning,, her concentration more on remembering the words and the ritual than me. "Are you happy," I wanted to ask?

    After my acknowledgment that I knew the risks of bringing syringes, alcohol and other drugs into the jail, a young Labrador was led up to me. It ignored my boot and stuck its great nose in my crutch. "Perverse and invasive, is how you have been trained, mate" I thought to myself because I knew for sure that no Ganga fairy has graced that part of my body for a long time.


    The arrival of 15 people at the visitor's centre put stress on processing. Some of the party were rejected for not having enough ID. We sat around waiting while Brett argued about the rights of visitors and pleaded for generosity and forbearance.

    The Governor Don Rodgers came into the reception area and apologised. "You should have let me know there would be so many. Should have come earlier," he said. For it was 1.45 pm and visits have to be through reception by 2 pm.

    I said I wasn't fussed but there was a visitor not associated with our party who was. He had been waiting for an hour, probably travelled from Sydney 2 hours to get there, and when the 2 pm close down was announced he went to the reception counter and spoke his mind. "If you were not going to let me see my friend, why didn't you tell me? Why did you make me wait?" he demanded to know. The prison officer apologised and shrugged.

    Fact is the Drug War security checks and the sniffer dogs are putting serious constraints on family visiting.

    While I waited I listened to Tania, a member of the Australian Prisoners Union and a former Drug War prisoner of six years. She told me an inside story. It was at Mulawa women's prison where a regime of random cell and body searches prevailed. She was in her cell when the search team burst into the cell of her friend "Lisa". Statistics are that 50% of women prisoners have a history of mental illness and 85% of women are survivors of sexual abuse and incest.

    Apparently Lisa panicked and went rigid when the prison officers demanded she strip. She began screaming,, screaming for her life as they forced their will upon her. She was cuffed, naked and spread eagled on the floor of her cell and left there screaming while officers (male and female) came and went going about their duties. Just doing their job.

    Something broke in Lisa and from that time she became a self mutilator, someone who when left un-supervised would slash herself with any sharp instrument available. Tania had seen her months later, broken, scarred and bound. A total mad woman, her suffering is a burden to everyone now.

    "I can't forget that scream", said Tania. "And that's why I am here working for prison reform".


    Brett returned for the visit with news that the prisoner strike at Lithgow jail on International Prisoner Justice Day on 10 August had gone well. All the workshops had been closed for the day.

    Now it was my turn to urge the group to action for I was conscious of the time having made the commitment to quit the site by 4 pm. But Brett was understandably conscious of his belly. He had been going since 6 am and he had not yet had breakfast.
    We set up the cardboard jail, took the group photographs and ceremonially burned it at 3.30 pm.

    The Freedom Ride crew began to pack as Brett began to cook. There was tension between us when it came to packing the cutting board and the table Brett was eating from. "Do you mind?" said Brett. Actually yes, I do mind about keeping my agreements, I said. Brett, dear friend yielded again.

    A last task was to douse the fire, which was full of burning coal. I dragged it across the road to a water course and dumped it upside down in the stream. Just on 4 pm it was and, as if the dosing of the fire and the cloud of rising steam was some kind of signal, the afternoon shift knocked off and the cars of twenty prison officers went by in parade.

    The various parties and vehicles departed, the Freedom Riders agreeing to meet up at Kate and Michael's place to plan the Sydney actions. Brett's was the only vehicle left on site when I left. Turns out he had battery problems and with Govenor Rodgers' assistance, he was jumped started by prison officers. We all need each other sometime.


    In the backyard of Kate and Michael's we made a fire in a BBQ pit and stood around with beers and joints reviewing the day. The fire attracted the neighbouring kids, hungry and out-and-about, thinly clothed on this gusty winter night. On an old car seat beside the fire squeezed one girl and six boys, four 5 to 8 years old from one family. Father a jail bird, speed user, Michael told me. Kate and Michael cooked up the surplus food from the picnic and distributed the largesse all about. The boys ate hungrily and later departed taking, with them Michael's Gameboy which they had found in the house.

    A neighbour came by and, like Dickens' Fagan, gripped Michael head with both hands, part affectionately, part threateningly. He said to Michael still holding his head firmly that he was looking for a McCulloch chainsaw. Had to be a McCulloch. "I don't know where one is", Michael said looking at me: "And I don't do that stuff any more."

    May peace be with you, Michael and Kate. May peace be with us all.


    Jab and Dave camped in Michael and Kate's lounge room glad of the shelter, glad of the TV and the comforts of house holders. St John had gone back to the comforts offered by his woman friend, a former case management colleague at the Oberon Correctional Centre.

    I spent one more night camped totally exposed on Hassan's Walls alone in Happy Wheels. Outside sleet and violent wind gusts buffered the van. Inside I made up some mulled wine and settled into finish reading Tom Robbins latest book, Invalids Home from hot Climates, laughing hysterically at the bizarre situations Robins conjures up for his poor suffering heroes and comparing it to my own situation. In the gyres of eccentricity, this madness had to be the further reach. The gods must have been laughing.

    For my last nights in Lithgow I took refuge at a more sheltered spot, in the grounds of a working pottery under a 15 metre high brick chimney, which had served as a vent for the former colliery that had supplied the former brick, works on the site. Mines, engine sheds and furnaces must have needed lots of bricks. All ruins now. Broken bricks and lumps of coal all about.

    The potter, Cameron, supported our cause and in talking we discovered he had a link to the Freedom Ride. His sister was a former high flying police inspector, and now a journalist in Glen Innes. It was she who had interviewed me and taken the excellent publicity shot outside the Glen Innes Town Hall. Cameron was making a batch of one meter high ceramic "termite nests" for feeding echidna's at Taronga Park Zoo.

    He had a Drug War story to tell too. Like many artists he was a casual cannabis user. He had been teaching pottery to prisoners at Lithgow jail and enjoying it. One day a sniffer dog detected a forgotten and much laundered bud in the pocket of his flannel shirt. He was tackled and held in a headlock by a prison officer, arrested, sacked on the spot, and handed over to police who searched his pottery and charged him. Fined and put on 2 years probation by the courts, he now has a criminal record that prevents him teaching in NSW State schools.

    All for being in possession of a single bud of Nature's must useful plant. Prisoners and schools have been deprived of the teaching skills of a master potter. Who is the loser here? What madness is afoot.

    Graeme Dunstan
    29 August 2000

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