by Megan Palin
A SENIOR prison guard who has worked in a notorious New South Wales jail for almost 20 years has provided a rare and shocking insight into what really goes on behind bars.
In an exclusive interview with news.com.au, Bathurst Correctional Facility officer Thor Sutherland revealed the extreme and often revolting measures that many of the prison's worst inmates go to for attention, drugs, contraband and revenge.
The men's medium-security prison, about a 3.5-hour drive west of Sydney, is home to some of society's most depraved criminals including murderers and child sex offenders.
Heckles, death threats, assaults and stabbings carried out by inmates are commonplace in prisons around the world - and Bathurst is no exception. But some of their antics are so despicable they are not often spoken about outside prison walls.
"They'll smear (faeces) all over their bodies so we won't touch them," Mr Sutherland said.
"(I've seen some) literally just biting chunks out of their arms right in front of (me).
"It's hard to comprehend how somebody gets to that point where they think that's normal behaviour."
The drug ice has caused an increase in violent behaviours among inmates, according to Mr Sutherland. He said hard drugs were rampant inside the prison.
"There's an ice epidemic that is everywhere now," he said.
"A lot of inmates are now mentally unbalanced because they've just taken too much."
It's surprisingly easy to obtain drugs, weapons and other prohibited and illegal items in prison, according to Mr Sutherland. They are often smuggled in by visitors who are screened by a metal detector but not patted down by security.
"They bring in any drug you can think of: ice, heroin, pot and tobacco," the officer said.
"We stop a lot but a lot still comes in.
"You see some terrible things ... They cram (drugs) in babies nappies ... or a packet of chips ... and all kind of things then just pull it out.
"The inmate will just swallow it and just pass it later when he's back in his cell."
Drug detection dogs "show up at visits from time to time" but aren't always on site.
"The only way we could stop it is to have non-contact visits," he said.
But not even that would be foolproof.
Earlier this month, several people were seen "throwing stuff over the fence" into the prison from the neighbouring golf course.
"Somebody saw this car tearing through the golf course, rang the jail and we've picked it up on our cameras as it's leaving," Mr Sutherland said.
"Officers attended the scene where the package got thrown over and retrieved the package.
"I believe it was a big package of ice and tobacco."
News.com.au understands the alleged offenders are still on the run. The matter is currently the subject of a police investigation, according to a NSW Corrective Services spokesperson who declined to release the footage. NSW Police did not respond to questions from news.com.au in relation to the matter.
When they do get their hands on drugs, inmates can be just as inventive when it comes to administering their fix, as they are acquiring it. Mr Sutherland said prisoners used spray bottle pumps to make syringes or stole needles from the clinic to inject drugs.
"A lot of them are very, very good at it but some of the needles are the most disgusting things you'd ever see in your life," he said.
"You wonder how they could even think about using them."
Those who are caught with drugs while serving time face "internal jail charges" or police charges. Some are punished by being moved into segregation, also known as "solitary confinement".
"We let them out during the day for exercise and showers and so on but they don't have any other inmate contact during that segregation period," Mr Sutherland said.
NSW already has some of the harshest prison conditions in Australia: prisoners are locked down for more hours in their cells than anywhere else in the country, and the state spends fewer dollars per inmate - $188.82, per day - compared with the national average of $221.92. But it's a system that's clearly far from perfect.
According to Mr Sutherland, prisoners "will make a weapon out of anything and everything".
"Toothbrushes are very easy, they just file it on the ground to a sharp point, that's a pretty common one," he said.
"We supply them with razors, they take the blade out and with heat they sort of weld it on to a toothbrush as well so they've got something to slash ... they're very ingenious."
Mr Sutherland has seen the aftermath of attacks carried out with prison-made weapons.
A "vicious group assault" was one of the worst incidents he ever witnessed.
"(It was) on a singular inmate and the inmate's head looked like it was double in size and (there were) stabs to the body and stuff like that," he said.
Interacting with criminals who have been convicted of sickening crimes is not for the faint-hearted. But according to Mr Sutherland, most threats directed towards the guards and their families are rarely anything more than "just hot air". Although many officers have been attacked by inmates at the prison in the past.
"They'll say they hate you and want to kill you," Mr Sutherland said.
According to the Public Service Association (PSA), correctional officers and supporting staff are employed in one of the most dangerous workplaces in the country.
As of November 2017, 12 officers had been killed in the line of duty in NSW.
Mr Sutherland said guards were trained to deal with a wide range of situations and emergencies but weren't armed.
"We're not like the police, we don't have tasers or weapons or batons or anything like that so you do need to keep your wits about you and be aware of what's going on around you at pretty much all times," he said.
Officers instead have a "duress button" on their belts which they can press in the event of an emergency.
"It activates a signal to our control room and the officer up there puts over a radio call to all other officers letting them know that a staff member's in trouble and the location of where they are so the staff can respond and assist," he said.
The prison's intelligence staff work in conjunction with the Immediate Action Team - a dedicated riot squad - and can be anywhere in the jail within a matter of seconds.
They carry gas masks and work with high-powered tear gas that come in varying grades of intensity - from a thick, disorientating smoke, to a membrane nuking compound that can put a man on the ground almost instantly.
But Mr Sutherland is concerned that the state government's move to slash more jobs under Better Prisons workplace reforms will restrict the team's ability to respond to future incidents.
"We have had a few (riots) lately where we have had enough people for the secondary response to take control of the yard," he said.
"But we think in the future we mightn't have that component so we're not sure where the back-up's going to be coming from if things do go pear-shaped for us."
Prison Officers Vocational Branch vice chair and union official Jason Charlton described the reforms as "the biggest job cuts in (the state's) history".
"(That's) despite the fact that inmate numbers (are) at an all-time high," he said.
Bathurst Correctional Facility currently houses about 660 inmates and employs about 120 prison officers.
The PSA last year referred to the state's prison system as being "grossly overcrowded" and said it was housing 13,000 inmates despite being designed to accommodate 11,000. The NSW prison population increased 33 per cent between December 2011 and December 2016, but in the 12 months that followed it only increased by a further 0.7 per cent, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research announced in January.
PSA secretary Stewart Little said that returning to families and loves ones safely was "never a guarantee...in this line of work".
"No other workplace requires the riot squad to be on stand-by when a smoking ban is introduced," Mr Little said in a statement.
"Many of the inmates that Correctional Officers and staff supervise have nothing left to lose and all too often officers are required to deal with unpredictable and dangerous situations.
"This underscores the importance of proper staff to inmate ratios and the need for improved workers compensation provisions to protect these officers and their families.
"Prison Officers put their lives on the line each day, 365 days a year.
"We owe them a debt of gratitude.
The NSW government hopes to relieve pressure on the system with the Hunter Correctional Centre, which was opened by Corrections Minister David Elliott in Cessnock last month.