Cuts Both Ways

Prepared for Attack and Defence at Maitland Gaol

Strip searches, ‘shut downs’ and cell raids, such as when kitchen knives went missing, frequently sparked hostility and violence among the prisoners of Maitland Gaol, interrupting the calm. As warder Keith Bush remembered: ‘… everybody’s talking, singing, yelling out, screaming at each other… People are just snarling at you, giving you filthy looks.’

In this volatile environment, Maitland’s officers were on constant alert to defend themselves with batons at the ready or carried in a pocket. They were also issued with cylinder whistles, to call for back-up from other guards. Neville Griffiths, who worked at Maitland from 1951, remembered how fellow warders would menacingly strike walls with their batons while prisoners were given instructions, as well as using his own baton for self defence.

Fights between prisoners were common, as were attacks on staff. Maitland’s warders were beaten, pelted with bricks, thrown down stairs, or attacked with ‘shivs’ (improvised stabbing weapons) and syringes. In 1991, warder John Laczkowski had boiling water thrown at him, and a prisoner with Hepatitis C spat blood and saliva in his face. Stress and anxiety caused many officers to resign.

But the antagonism and violence would often cut both ways. Former staff members Reg Dodds and John Lawson recalled that defiant prisoners were commonly bashed by warders. Those who had intimidated or attacked staff might be beaten in their cells at night and left alone without medical treatment.