Chopper- My first stint behind bars
2nd October 2011
Updated 11th July 2012
SENT to Turana Boys Home in 1970, violence became second nature to Mark "Chopper" Read. He writes about his first experience of detention.
I COULD have got probation, since it was a first offence, but my father turned up at the court with a message for the judge: my mother still wouldn't have me home. I couldn't believe it. The judge didn't have much choice but to make me a ward of the state and send me back to Turana Boys Home. I shuffled off in the police van with no idea when I'd get out of there.
I was pretty upset that night. I was upset that my mother had let me go back there, that my parents had left me to rot in that miserable, boring place. It was fine, I suppose, when there was just a couple of weeks ahead of me, but I wasn't too happy about staying there for good. I wasn't scared, I was just a bit sad about it -- that first night, anyway.
I suppose another kid would have been terrified, but that's just not the way my brain works.
When I came back from court, they moved me from the remand section of Turana, the cells, over to the dormitories in Class B. Class B was for the smaller kids, up to 15 years old. Next door was Class A, for the older kids. Class B had two dormitories up the back that slept 100 kids. They brought me in and showed me my bunk, showed me the bed pack and the correct way to make my bed every morning. We had our own toothbrush, a comb or a brush, and soap in the shower. We had our day clothes and our pyjamas. That was about it.
THE screws that looked after the kids were some of the funniest people I've ever seen in my life. The first time I walked into the mess room in B section, I saw this red-headed character, all of five foot tall. He was standing at attention like he was in the army, peering up at me. Five foot tall, and he weighed about seven stone! If he'd been any shorter he would have made a good circus dwarf. I said this to him, and he took offence.
"Taken offence, have you?" I told him. "I couldn't care if you took the whole gate."
Fancy hiring a dwarf as a prison officer. He had small-man syndrome, and he wasn't happy unless he was making the kids feel even smaller than he was.
"Get down there and lick up that mess," he'd say. Little bastard.
"Do it yourself, you runt," I'd tell him, and I'd be straight up on charges.
"Prisoner Read threatened me," he would report.
"Who wouldn't bloody threaten you?" I'd laugh. "I've only got to walk towards you to threaten you! I've only got to stand next to you to threaten you, you bloody midget!"
The rest of them weren't much better, mind you. I don't know where those bums came from. The screws were mostly ex-army/navy/air force, but they all must have done time in army/navy/air force mental hospitals, and been recruited from there. They were all nuts.
There was a big Maltese guy everyone was frightened of. He was a strong bloke, and he used to run about belting the kids. He came running up to me one day, drooling and yelling something or other, and I slammed the door shut with an almighty bang, and he went face first into it. Broke his jaw on the big iron plate. Everyone thought I hit him, but in that case I was innocent. It was the door that was guilty!
Every day had the same bloody routine. They'd wake us up with a bell at seven o'clock and the first thing we'd have to do is make the bed, then head off for a shower. They'd ring the bell, and we'd file into the day room, then they'd ring another bell, and we'd file into the mess hall for breakfast. Another bell, and we'd be back to the day room.
"Anyone want to play volleyball? Volleyball?" someone would call out.
They used to play volleyball in the little cement exercise yard. There wasn't a gym in Class B, and no room out in the yard for any decent sort of sport, so all the kids would pile out there in the morning and play volleyball like a bunch of p-------. You have to smack the ball with your bloody wrists, for God's sake, a gentle little whack on the ball. Volleyball! It's not a real sport. Still, I'd go out and watch them play, because there was nothing else to do.
After lunch it was back into the day room. There was no schoolwork going on back then, we'd just watch TV all day long and play bloody volleyball. Four and a half months in Turana, and I never once bumped into a schoolteacher. Never once bumped into a book. I didn't see pens, paper, a library, not back then.
I imagine now they've got courses and training or whatever, but in 1970 all you did was talk about crime and watch TV. There were board games in the day room, but no one ever played them. We'd sit around watching Gilligan's Island and Hogan's Heroes. Skippy was on the telly too back then, but I thought it was silly rubbish.
The whole thing was so mindless and dull it would drive a holy man to murder.
The screws at Turana believed in corporal punishment, and pretty much everything required punishment, according to them. They had a thing called dumb insolence; I had no idea what they were on about. Turns out not saying anything to them was rude, so that copped you a slap. If you were sarcastic, or if you walked away when they spoke to you, if you ignored one of their stupid orders, they wanted to put you on a charge.
They always threatened me with Poplar House, and I told them to give it a try. They'd threaten me with solitary confinement, bashings, the water hose. Things got nasty over there, they said.
"You'll need the army, navy and air force to get me down there, and I'll take a few of your heads off along the way," I told them.
I wasn't afraid of bashing the screws, and I wasn't afraid of the other kids either. All the supposedly tough bastards who were in Poplar House and came over to Kwombie got a good beating from me, sooner or later. Graeme Jensen, Graham Kinniburgh and some others - they were supposed to be the tough kids.
Graeme Jensen was about 17, and he was in for armed robbery with a .22-calibre rifle. He came over to Kwombie, swinging his arms about the place and talking out of the side of his mouth like a little gangster. I backhanded him across the face and it was on, he started throwing punches so I had to sort him out.
Kids would go to hospital with a broken nose or broken cheekbone, over to the Royal Melbourne. You'd get the occasional stabbing, too. People would get a sharpened knife in the guts, but nothing fatal, as far as I can remember.
I STARTED cracking people over the head with iron bars while I was in Turana, on advice from my dad.
"Don't hit them with a big whack," my old man said. "You'll put it straight through their skull and kill 'em. Sail it through the air at a gentle speed. Just tap them on the head, and you'll know if it's done any good by the look in their eye. If they look angry, you haven't hit them hard enough."
During the war my dad was in a commando unit called K-Force. He did three months' training in armed and unarmed combat, and he taught me a few things when he came to visit me. He told me never to use the point of the iron bar, but to use the flat of the bar and bounce it like a hammer. He told me you could crack the skull, bang, without killing the bloke. I got pretty good at it with a bit of practice. It's easy enough to get an iron pipe, 18 inches or so.
Dad would come and visit me on Saturdays and Sundays. He had half an hour in the visiting area while I was in remand, and an hour or so in the mess hall while I was in Class B. By the time I got to Coolabah, he could visit all day.
HE'D drive his car on to the property and we'd sit in the front seat and talk. I told him about the stuff that went on. Not about the homosexuality, mind you, but the rest of the s---. He probably figured out the rest for himself.
After about four and a half months, my dad finally talked my mum around, and she decided to let me come home. Four and a half months seemed to drag on for bloody ever. I was different when I walked out of there. I was older in the head. I'd hit people with iron bars. I'd met kids from my old high school in Lalor who used to stand over me, and I f----- them right up. I was frightened of them at school, but not inside Turana.
I came out bigger and tougher. I was harder in the mind, and more prepared to inflict pain on others. I realised how much you could hurt someone without killing them.
Extracted from Road to Nowhere by Mark Read. Published by Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99.