Fighting Fear

Improvised Weapons at Maitland Gaol

It was fear that stopped Dave McGarry from re-offending when he was finally released from Maitland Gaol. Locked up from age nineteen, McGarry remembers how ‘everyone here was someone to be scared of… at least sixty per cent of the guys… all carried weapons’.

Improvised stabbing weapons, known as ‘shivs’ in ‘criminal slang’ since at least the early nineteenth century, were made at Maitland Gaol throughout its 150-year history. Being found with a shiv could see an inmate hauled into court. But, they were usually so well hidden – buried in Milo tins, inside radios and other secret locations – that few inmates were charged.

Some objects available inside were sharp and ready to wield like razors, wire and kitchen utensils. But others needed creative adaptation such as sharpening toothbrushes, or rolling toilet paper into a choking cord. In 1932, three warders were stabbed with a sharpened table knife, and a former inmate from 1993 named Robbie remembered, ‘I… had a toothbrush melted to fit a razor blade in it’.

Most weapons were wanted for self-defence against the risk of beatings, violence and rape by other prisoners, but prisoners also used them during protests, escapes, and bloody attacks on other prisoners and guards. Prison staff were under constant threat, leaving many emotionally scarred and requiring counselling. Former warder Keith Bush recalled, ‘It’s hours and hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror’.