The cells had not changed in style from the gold rush and its vast perimeter in a Melbourne suburb made it relatively easy to breach, with contraband coming in and the occasional prisoner getting out.
The final attempt at modernisation was a disaster. When Crawford first walked in, they were planning the new maximum-security “jail within a jail”: Jika Jika. It was a concrete station broken into six arms connected by a central hub. Rather than locks and keys, the doors were hydraulically controlled from a command centre.
The aim was to make it escape-proof and keep violent prisoners away from each other. It was opened in 1980 and proved catastrophic, closing seven years later after a deliberately lit fire killed five inmates.
When Crawford arrived, the section of the jail known as H-Division was in the grip of the infamous sausage war (so named because of bad blood when 60 sausages went missing) between Mark “Chopper” Read’s Overcoat Gang and Painters and Dockers union-influenced crooks led by a third-generation armed robber. The “war” lasted five years and resulted in more than 60 attacks and 11 attempted murders.
Read’s team wore overcoats to hide their weapons and had the support of some prison bosses. The Dockers’ gang had the support of some underworld bosses.
Read was released and became a bestselling author. The head of the Dockies was released to become a contract killer and later a protected witness.
For the bright kid from Bayswater with an interest in science, the prison officer test was a challenge for Crawford, particularly the maths: “I had to stuff up a few questions so they didn’t think I was too smart.”
Once selected, he arrived at Pentridge for two weeks’ training: “Walking in there was kind of scary.”
His mind was not to be too cluttered with criminological theories: “We were told not to traffic anything, taught how to whack someone with a baton and warned not to show the keys.”
Crawford learned quickly that rehabilitation was not about what the authorities could offer but what the inmate wanted to receive.
“One told me: ‘I’m a criminal, that’s what I do. When I get out, it is like school holidays. I get pissed and rob people. When I get caught, I come back here and it’s like coming back to school’.”
When he had a discussion about music, one inmate said if he liked a song, he would go to a shop and steal the record. It was Laurie Prendergast, who shouldn’t have been short of a dollar — he was alleged to be one of the Great Bookie Robbers who escaped with millions in 1976. He was also one of three gangsters charged and acquitted of the 1978 murder of Leslie Herbert Kane, whose body was never found. It must have been contagious, as Laurie went missing in 1985 and his body was never found.
Pentridge is long gone but the feuds and cliques remain. The Melbourne underworld is a little like the royal family, with a traceable lineage, a dash of intermarriage and a love of flash cars.
Les Kane’s brother, Brian, vowed revenge and in 1979, inside the Melbourne Magistrates Court, he gunned down Ray Bennett, the mastermind of the Bookie Robbery and one of the three men who murdered his brother.
Brian Kane was himself gunned down, by two men in Brunswick’s Quarry Hotel in 1982. One was said to be serial hitman Rod Collins, who later became part of drug dealer Carl Williams’ murderous crew.
When Brian Kane was killed, a death notice appeared in the paper to “Uncle Brian”, signed by “Your little mate, Jason Moran”. Moran married Les Kane’s daughter. He was shot dead in Essendon North in June 2003 — on the orders of Carl Williams.
Back in 1978, Chopper Read planned to lock H-Division staff in the scullery then open every cell to attack his enemies. Two of his trusted allies, Jimmy Loughnan and Greg “Bluey” Brazel, decided the plan was crazy but understood negotiation was not Read’s strong suit.
So they attacked him in the exercise yard, stabbing him in the neck and torso with an ice pick and leaving him with a perforated bowel and ruptured spleen, gall bladder and stomach.
Loughnan died in the 1987 Jika Jika fire and for years Brazel, a multiple murderer, was the most feared man in the prison system. He appeared unstoppable — that is, until he was bashed by Matthew “The General” Johnson, who in 2010 attacked and killed underworld kingpin Carl “The Premier” Williams.
Are we getting the picture here? Violent crooks rarely need to invest in superannuation.
One of the prisoners Crawford watched over was Peter Walker, a prison fixture who was lucky not to hang. He had escaped from Pentridge in 1965 with Ronald Ryan, who shot a prison officer dead in the process. Ryan was hanged in 1967 – the last execution in Australia.
“Peter had a second cell in B-Division for his [vinyl] records. He was the division DJ,” says Crawford. In 1978, the junior prison officer escorted an electrician into the division to fix some plugs for Walker’s “Radio Pentridge”. When Brazel set fire to his cell, “we sheltered with Peter in his cell”.
Crawford says Walker was institutionalised and always compliant. That was on the inside. When he was released, he was soon back to his old ways, dabbling in drugs and guns, and is now awaiting deportation to England.
Then there was John William “Piggy” Palmer, who along with Barry Robert Quinn was charged with murdering two people during the October 1974 armed robbery on the St Kilda Car-O-Tel motel. Quinn was convicted while Palmer was acquitted.
“Palmer always looked scary, as if he was about to explode, even when he was pushing a broom around,” recalls Crawford.
Inside Jika Jika, Quinn made the mistake of teasing killer Alex Tsakmakis. In 1984, Tsakmakis doused Quinn with model glue and set him on fire, burning him to death.
In 1988, Tsakmakis had his head caved in by Russell Street bomber Craig Minogue in H-Division, proving justice is not always dispensed inside a court.
Crawford found most of the inmates polite and unthreatening. Many were institutionalised and others knew how to play the game, which was to do your time as easily as possible without rocking the boat.
There were drugs in prison, usually thrown over the wall inside a tennis ball, but homebrew was the tipple of choice. “It was pretty easy to make. They would just get any sort of vegetable matter, steal some yeast from the bakery and put it in a container,” says Crawford.
Crawford was a quick learner and found if rostered on the midnight shift on the main gate, it was a good chance to catch up on sleep. “One night I lay down on a bench seat with my greatcoat and pulled a radiator up as it was cold. When I woke up the soles on my boots were melted.”
Today, prison officers have metal detectors and drug-screening walkways. Back then, things were a little more hands-on. “There was a prisoner called Rhino. His job was to drive a tractor and trailer of smelly food scraps out the main gate every day to be dumped. We had a number of sharpened steel poles that we would plunge into the stuff before we let him through, although we never found a prisoner.”
When relieved for lunch when working in a tower, the prison officer would lower the keys in a tin attached to a string.
Among the notorious inmates was a quiet bloke who worked in the records area. He was a biochemist who had been convicted of a serious offence, would do his time and remain squeaky clean for the rest of his life.
“He was a really pleasant guy and we got yapping. He thought I had more to offer than hanging around Pentridge,” says Crawford.
“I was always interested in science. I had my first chemistry set when I was six.”
With the inmate’s encouragement, he applied to Monash University’s science faculty and although he didn’t have an impressive high school record, he flew through an aptitude test and enrolled in 1979, leaving the “Bluestone College” for a more formal academic environment.
Dr Geoff Crawford completed a PhD in microbiology, tutors Melbourne University medical students and gives expert evidence in court cases, often involving potential medical malpractice. He also pursues a passion in antiques.
“I suppose [that inmate] turned on a little light bulb in my head. I thought, ‘what am I doing here sitting in an office sticking photos in record books?’”
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.