Not Just Any Wooden Chopping Board – A Prison Tale

Some years ago I got a wooden chopping board from Casuarina prison. I purchased it from the wood-working section when I was a volunteer for the Independent Prison visitor scheme run by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services.

As a prison visitor I would observe and speak to any prisoner who had scrawled their name on the pale green flyer pinned to their unit wall. It was our job to document their concerns and take it to the Superintendent. He was a man close to retirement. He had worked all his life with prisoners and you got the sense he really cared for them. He lunched at the prison on Christmas day, he told me. When not discussing the prison he wanted to ask me veterinary questions. He loved to talk of the heifers he raised on his hobby farm. If he was unavailable we would meet with the Deputy. Taller, grey-faced, smelling of cigarettes, with the nose of a heavy drinker. Afterwards, we would write a report for the Department of Corrections as they were required to respond to the prisoners concerns. We were a kind of weak-willed watch-dog, but we were also able to get some minor problems solved, as they arose, if the prisoners were unable to do it themselves. We could get them an appointment with the dentist or find them someone to explain their sentencing. The Super would just pick up his phone. They, of course, often had bigger concerns that we had no control over. Like “I am Innocent.” One man liked to detail his entire defence and how he was unjustly accused and convicted for the murder of his wife. He didn’t even believe she was dead. No body had been found. He couldn’t possibly have done it. His version was, to me, very believable, and he was reasonable company; often making scones for our scheduled visit. If his name was on the list, I would see him. Others, similarly, just wanted someone to talk to and would make up a reason to see the Visitor. One day I asked the Super if he thought the man had killed his wife. Of course, he said. No doubt about it.

The prison visits were conducted in pairs and I usually went with Warwick. He had done the job for a lot longer than me. And he went to more prisons. He was a retired Christian Brother and a good man. He wore a tweed jacket. He believed people, but was not naive. He let them talk, but also knew how to end a conversation that wasn’t going anywhere. Warwick would see some of the more difficult men or those deemed unsuitable for me to see. Or simply the ones that gave me the creeps. Like the guy who started commenting on my appearance. Your hair’s nice today, Nicky. It was in relation to him that I first heard the term Groomer.

We would typically have twenty or so names to see and we would divide them equally and head off in various directions to find our guys. They might be in their units, in education or working. We would be escorted by an officer, if we requested it, but after a while we just went on our own, knowing the lay of the land. Walking across the grounds of Casuarina, even with the sun out and the drone of lawn mowers, made me a little nervous. After all it was not just any garden and the men working on the flowerbeds not just regular gardeners. They were inmates. Granted, to be on the Gardening team meant you had to be of the Good Kind, after all you had the roam of the place and you had tools. You got to drive a little buggy and cart bins. But still. The price of an active imagination was walking across the grounds, whilst scanning for potential threats, locating officers whereabouts, imagining how I could use the flimsy exercise book as a defensive weapon.

Those not working would be in their units. Each unit was cordoned off from the general grounds by fencing and an electronic gate operated from within the unit. Men would loiter at the fence and watch you walk by. Morning Miss. Bouncing basketballs, doing chin ups. Putting muscles on muscles. What ya doing Miss? Any laughter was at me, I was sure. You needed to greet them and smile. It felt required. One time, an officer said to me, “You know they’re thinking of what they would do to you if they could.” That unnerved me. My heart was racing. It made me scared of the officer too. The way he said it. The way he wore his belt so tight. The way he thought I might be a stupid do-gooder for coming there in the first place and deserving of what I got. Who was thinking what in here? Always in the back of your mind, it felt dangerous. And I was a little on edge. Maybe that was a good thing.

Some officers made you feel that way – a Them and Us. But others had a different approach. Mentoring and helping.

Where men were working it felt more settled. People had things to do. The officers had a role to teach more than guard and it made for a better atmosphere. More like high school. My favourite was the Bakery. Men in white, aprons to their knees, and flour smudged and softened everything. Yeast and baking bread overrode the prison smell. My least favourite – veggie prep. Piles of potatoes for peeling. An overripe stench. Wet floors and gum boots. Hair nets. A man worked here who all the others despised. He had AIDS and they feared him. He picked the festering scabs on his face and they said he bled over stuff. It’s Unhygienic. The others wanted him removed. But it was a privilege to have employment. And he’d earned it. After all you have more freedom that way. You got out of your unit and walked in a group with a couple of officers the length of the grounds to the work areas. Tell him to quit picking, suggested the Superintendent.

So one day in wood work I bought a wooden board. I checked with the Super. It was okay, as long as I made sure I paid for it. An invoice was created and a cheque made out. No cash in prison.

When I use the board I think of Casuarina. The prison in the scrub, an oasis in sand, its perimeter razor wired and impenetrable. Driving away, past the Vietnamese market gardens selling strawberries by the roadside, past the new suburbs with their darkly tiled roofs, I began to breathe. I drove to the ocean and sat looking out. The ocean went on and on. So free, I felt. So grateful, and liberated, and free. I burst into tears. I didn’t know where the tears came from. I guess it was simply a release from the stress and fear. In the prison I had encountered madness. A young man was so clearly deranged that even I, with no training in mental health, could see he needed to be in hospital, rather than in prison. He believed the superintendent had implanted a monitoring device in his brain and was watching everything. Everyone knew of this young man. The prisoner was always on the list. We couldn’t help him. We nodded and tried to get away as quickly as possible. We wrote notes about getting the device removed. He was one of the forgotten. Young and pale, in his dark green prison attire, breakfast stains down the front of him. A face tortured with illness. Nails bitten away. His name sent eyebrows to the heavens and made officers groan, “What does he want now?”