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Inmates open up about what life’s REALLY like behind bars –  and what it means to be a jail ‘ostrich’



By Stephen Gibbs for Daily Mail Australia

13:51 21 Jan 2024, updated 14:25 21 Jan 2024



The entrance to Mid North Coast Correctional Centre looks more like a boutique winery or regional wedding venue than a maximum security prison.

Kangaroos pick at lush grass on the other side of a post-and-rail fence, while horses graze on pasture behind a sign across the road offering ‘fresh happy chook eggs’.

Aa short drive through gum trees leads to a walled complex and fences topped with coils of razor wire built to contain some of Australia’s most dangerous men.

MNCCC is in the hamlet of Aldavilla, 14km west of Kempsey and 455km north of Sydney. Itopened in 2004 and currently holds about 1,000 prisoners. 

Inmates make hand signs at the maximum security Mid North Coast Correctional Centre which houses some of the most serious offenders in New South Wales
The entrance to the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre looks more like a boutique winery or regional wedding venue than a maximum security jail
A member of the Immediate Action Team at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre is pictured with equipment including a tear gas gun

It has minimum security sections for male and female inmates on its fringes and holds medium-classified offenders but most of the prisoners are men housed in two maximum security sectors.

It is home to killers, gangsters, drug bosses and rapists. There are women who will spend only weeks awaiting a court hearing and men who will never be released. 

Vulnerable inmates are kept on protection and segregation cells are filled with felons who have caused trouble behind bars here or in other jails around NSW.

Governor Jack Reynolds has a saying to sum up prisoners sent to MNCCC who have committed further offences in other jails.  

‘We take everyone’s broken birds,’ he says. ‘But some people are an emu or a cassowary or an ostrich. They’ll never fly.’   

The next stop for inmates who commit serious offences in MNCCC is Goulburn’s Supermax, the country’s most secure jail.

That is where Islamic extremist Bourhan Hraichie found himself after using a razor to carve ‘E4E’ (eye for an eye) into the forehead of his new cellmate, former soldier Michael O’Keefe, in April 2016.

Kangaroos graze on grassland outside the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre (MNCCC)
The MNCCC at Aldavilla, 14km west of Kempsey and 455km north of Sydney, opened in 2004 and currently holds about 1,000 inmates
Inmates live in pods which contain cells across two landings surrounding a communal area

Two-time killer Vester Fernando, who had already spent time in Supermax, was returned there after trying to murder another inmate he tried to stab to death in April 2020. 

In December that year, two inmates armed with makeshift weapons held an officer hostage for five hours as they demanded buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid addiction.

The officer was stabbed, punched until he lost vision, and doused with cleaning fluid which the inmates threatened to ignite. Both those inmates are now n Supermax.

Daily Mail Australia was given an exclusive tour of MNCCC on Tuesday and found a prison where inmates are given every opportunity to help themselves, but no quarter if they play up.

Upon arrival at 9.30am prisoners were still locked in their cells after receiving a surprise visit from members of the elite Security Operations Group.

The SOG had conducted a targeted early-morning search and while they didn’t find what they were looking for, still located three shivs, one syringe and a tattoo gun.

One of the shivs was fashioned from part of a tennis racket and hidden inside a fabric softener container. The tattoo gun, made from a set of hair clippers, was found in an inmate’s jacket. 

The same team searched another section of the jail on Wednesday and located four more shivs, a mobile phone and charger, 101 bupe strips, a syringe, 92g of cannabis, 12g of ice and .8g of white powder.

MNCCC has minimum security sections for male and female inmates on its fringes but most of the prisoners are men housed in two maximum security sectors
The jail houses killers, gangsters, rapists and armed robbers. There are women who will spend only weeks awaiting a court hearing and men who will never be released
Vulnerable inmates are kept on protection and segregation cells (above) are filled with inmates who have caused trouble behind bars here or in other jails around NSW

The most commonly smuggled drug at MNCCC is still buprenorphine, or ‘bupe’, which comes in orange, paper-thin squares about the size of a 5c coin.

One strip of bupe – known as a ‘spot’ – is worth $600 to $800 in prison, down from a high of $1,500 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past, when bupe was administered intravenously, inmates would squeeze the injection site until the jelly-like substance came to the surface and then suck it out.

More than 600 bupe strips have been seized by MNCCC staff in the past three months, compared with about 3g of heroin in the past year. 

During Daily Mail Australia’s visit part of the prison was locked down after an inmate-on-inmate assault in a cell but there seemed to be less tension than in some maximum security jails. 

For a prison this big, the place was relatively quiet. The loudest sounds came from a basketball court overtaken by a flock of screeching rainbow lorikeets. 

While many of MNCCC’s inmates are repeat visitors, some are experiencing jail for the first time and have to adjust to a new way of doing things. 

Governor Jack Reynolds (above) says inmates are given every opportunity to better themselves behind bars. If they want to act up, they can face the consequences
Troublesome inmates from other jails can be transferred to MNCCC if they commit offences in other facilities including assaulting staff
Most inmates at MNCCC are engaged in work for Corrective Services Industries or attend classes at the Intensive Learning Centre

‘In this environment, you’ve got to try and do your own thing and not get involved in that stereotypical jail politics,’ Reynolds says.

‘It’s like on the outside, you’re in a shopping centre and someone bumps into you coming down the escalator. You’ve got two choices. 

‘You can arc up, you can punch on – or you can walk away. You’ve got to weigh up the consequences. You’ve got that choice.’

Most inmates at MNCCC are engaged in work for Corrective Services Industries or attend classes at the Intensive Learning Centre.

There are two kitchens, three furniture shops and others for upholstery and textiles,  as well as a packing facility which services the weekly prison grocery purchasing system known as buy-ups.

When Daily Mail Australia visited MNCCC on Tuesday prisoners were still locked in their cells after receiving a surprise visit from members of the elite Security Operations Group (above)
Security Operations Group officers found a shiv made from a tennis racket concealed inside a fabric softener container on Tuesday morning
This jail-made tattoo gun was fashioned from a set of hair clippers and seized at MNCCC

In the buy-ups section three staff oversee 45 inmates, only eight of whom have been sentenced. 

About 60 per cent of MNCCC’s population are on remand and therefore don’t have to work but most do.

‘The guys here want to do the right thing,’ Reynolds says. ‘If they don’t, they’re out.’

The industries serve other jails in NSW and inmates who work or learn together are also housed in the same pod of cells. 

Working or learning makes the time pass more quickly. If inmates weren’t in a workshop or classroom they would be spending about six more hours a day in their pods.

The buy-up system allows inmates to spend up to $120 a week on food and basic items such as toiletries. Like most other Australians, prisoners feel the rise in the cost of living and $120 does not buy as much as it did a few years ago. 

Despite that budgetary bite, inmates at MNCCC have just completed a food drive to donate goods to the Kempsey community through Dunghetti Elders Council.

More than 40 per cent of inmates are Indigenous and many are from the mid north coast. That can cause problems when disputes in the outside world are continued within the prison walls, and vice versa.  

But it also means there are strong ties between the jail and the broader community, as was obvious on Tuesday when inmates handed over two pallets of groceries for disadvantaged families.

These inmates work in a packing facility which services the weekly prison grocery purchasing system known as buy-ups
Prisoners recently donated two pallets of food bought through the buy-up scheme to be donated to families around Kempsey
Female inmates in minimum security are pictured preparing to enter their cells at the afternoon muster

While prisoners are given three meals a day and have a roof over their heads their partners might be struggling to pay rent and their children not being properly fed. 

Inmate Peter, who was one of the driving forces behind the food drive, has spent most of the past quarter century in custody. He got the nickname Triple 0 after burning down houses when he was 10.

‘I had a hard life growing up,’ Peter says. 

‘I grew up around drugs and alcohol. Mum and dad were in jail and I grew up with my grandmother. It wasn’t easy for me and definitely not for her.

‘Today, looking back at the life I had, I want to give back to the community the best way I can. It also helps myself at the same time.’

The 35-year-old knows his three children suffer in his absence. ‘Twenty-five years of doing this, it’s not good,’ he says. ‘I’m finally changing my ways.’

Lisa Brown (left) and her sister Nala Hayes (right) have been recognised for their dedicated service at MNCCC as part of National Corrections Day
Working or learning makes the time pass more quickly. If inmates weren’t in a workshop or classroom they would be spending about seven hours more a day in their pods
Walls and fences keep inmates secure but MNCCC has electronic surveillance monitoring almost every inch of the jail

Helping change the ways of these inmates are dedicated staff such as sisters Lisa Brown, a services and programs officer, and Nala Hayes, a teacher in the Intensive Learning Centre.

Both are being recognised for their work in this year’s National Corrections Day.

Brown joined Corrective Services in 2008 as a custodial officer but ditched the uniform to concentrate on preparing inmates for their release or parole.

Hayes was a primary school teacher who followed her younger sibling into Corrective Services six years ago. 

Five days a week she teaches inmates English, maths and skills they can use when they return to the community, such as organising their finances and how to register a car.

Inmates undergo assessments which go towards gaining certificates certifying their competency. All have volunteered for the program.

In April 2016, Islamic extremist Bourhan Hraichie found himself after using a razor to carve ‘E4E’ (eye for an eye) into the forehead of his new cellmate
During Daily Mail Australia’s visit part of the prison was locked down after an inmate-on-inmate assault in a cell
For a prison as big as MNCCC the place is relatively quiet. The loudest sound came from rainbow lorikeets screeching on a basketball court

When Daily Mail Australia visited the classroom inmates had completed a project which required them to use supermarket catalogues to budget for a ‘romantic’ three-course meal.

One prisoner spent $98.50 on an entree of brie, crackers and dip, a main course of salmon, polenta chips, peas and a baguette, with ice cream and cholates for desert, washed down with a four-pack of vodka and grape juice.

Another allocated $10 to a prepared package of beef stroganoff followed by rump steak worth $23 and a $2.75 block of chocolate – with a $63 bottle of black label Johnnie Walker bringing his total to $98.75. 

Inmate Jai, whose formal education ended in 6th class, has a two-year-old daughter and wants to learn ‘how to live a normal life’.

‘All of us here have a family outside of this,’ he says. ‘When my daughter comes home with homework if I don’t know how to do it it’s not going to be real good.’

John has spent the past 15 years in custody and before he came to the Intensive Learning Centre could not read or write.

‘We want to do well for the teachers,’ he says. ‘They show that they want to help us.’

Privacy is not always a top priority in maximum security prisons. This toilet is on a busy corridor
Fresh inmates are given a ‘welcome pack’ including toilet paper, plates and a cup, two small toothbrushes and soap
While prisoners are being given three meals a day and have a roof over their head their families might be struggling to pay rent and their children not being fed

Inmate Chris says inmates at the centre are well-behaved because they are treated with respect and want to be there.

‘If they treat us like animals that’s how we act – like animals,’ he says. 

‘We enjoy coming here, it passes our day. This is a good jail because we make it good.’

Hayes – ‘Miss’ to her students – spends her days surrounded by men who have committed crimes including murder but never feels unsafe in their company.

‘In terms of their crimes I can only gauge them on their attitudes and behaviours when they’re at school,’ she says.

‘We want them to look beyond their whole identity being a criminal. This place allows them to see something else.’

These inmates are taking part in the education programs offered at the Intensive Learning Centre
Two-time killer Vester Fernando tried to murder another inmate he repeatedly stabbed in the neck, chest and back inside C pod (above) in April 2020
‘Everyone’s a bit different,’ says Governor Jack Reynolds. ‘We give them everything they’re entitled to and it’s not up to us to take it off them. It’s up to them to stuff it up’

Reynolds has been a prison officer since 1990 and MNCCC is his thirteenth jail.

‘I always follow the philosophy that everyone can have a bad hair day,’ he says. ‘But if you’re having a bad hair week, what’s happening?’

According to Reynolds, the key to managing a maximum security prison is good communication.

‘That’s what keeps you safe in this environment,’ he says. ‘And this centre has a brilliant bunch of staff who do a spectacular job.

‘The minute you can’t communicate with people or you’re abrasive and you can’t read what’s going on you’re in trouble.  

‘Everyone’s a bit different. We give them everything they’re entitled to and it’s not up to us to take it off them. It’s up to them to stuff it up. 

‘Like I always say, the journey is not where you’ve been. It’s where you’re going.’     

READ MORE: Inside maximum security prison where 400 inmates live in ‘pods’ without doors and enjoy special privileges – but 600 cameras watch EVERY move



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