Bill Kearney

William (Bill) Kearney was born in 1912 and grew up in Queensland. He had a career as a prison warder in Queensland working mainly at Boggo Road and Wacol prisons. This is his story:

“I started work at 14 at McDonnell & East. I was there till I was 22 and in those days getting full wages. I was working in the dress material department and there were no women in that department, all men.”

Bill began working at Boggo Road in 1935, aged 23, after he first tried to join the Police Force. He was sent to try to get into the Prison service.

“So that’s when I got a start there. And I thought “I’ll get out of here” and I did too, 41 years later. The day I started, I’d never been near a gaol or seen a gaol and I started there they handed me a rifle, put me up on a tower – didn’t ask me if I could use it or not. [Fortunately, he was an experienced shooter, having been in a rifle club.] The training then was whoever took you around, you’d get their ideas, so very little training, next to nil. You get the right ones to tell you what to do. You get the wrong ones. No one would make me do what I didn’t think was right. Uniform was ordinary clothes. Most of the early duty was done up in the tower and that got very monotonous. I look back, just imagine me. I’d never been near a gaol, seen a gaol, they hand me a rifle, put me up in the tower, all the prisoners looking up at you, you know, very embarrassing. I was very very embarrassed. We used to go up at half past six and then come down at 8 o’clock and have breakfast and then you’d go back up there again.”

“I found it very boring actually. I didn’t agree with a lot of things that were going on. I was brought up to treat the other person the way I’d like to be treated. I’d treat the prisoner the way I’d like to be treated if I was in his shoes. That didn’t suit everyone. I was on probation and next thing I was in the Superintendent’s office. So I went in and he said “You use your weight and throw your weight around, use your authority or I’ll recommend your dismissal.” “Very good sir.” Walked out and I took that much notice. You don’t make me do what I’ve seen some of the others do, no. I’ve met some very good men and I’ve met some real so-and-so’s. I’ve met some men who were never fit for the job.

“The discipline was very strong and I wouldn’t down everything. I believe in strict discipline, although they reckon I wasn’t tough enough. But I believe in it. You’ve got to have it, that’s a must anywhere, in your own home, anywhere at all, you must have discipline. And I believe in it very strongly in the prison. A prisoner in those days if he walked out of the yard, he saluted. If he walked out of the wing, he “touched his hat” as they called it. It was a salute, he touched his hat. And if he come before the Chief or Superintendent, he’d salute and stand to attention. And they had very strict discipline. Come out of the yard, they’d salute. But they took that away for what reason, goodness knows.

“You had to work all different shifts. You’d start, on a roster you’d start at half past six and you’d finish at 5 o’clock. You’d do 10 ½ hours on some, if you done court work or anything like that you might work eight hours, you’d start at 8 o’clock and finish at 5 or 4. But then you’re on a roster, you start going around on a roster till you reach a certain, what they called “A Clock” or Number 1 Post, you’d done A Clock at night and Number 1 in the afternoon. And when you done Number 1 Post on a Friday, that meant you went on day work for six weeks, and then you’d come off that and back on this roster again. But the night work, you never done that many in a row in my time. As the senior, the seniors used to have to work all night, nearly all night work. But the ordinary officer he’d work night work, one night a week, two nights a week, just depends on a generals, what they called a general work, General B Tower the next day and then you went to yards, and then you went back on to, I just can’t think of all them off by heart now but, it was – to do the whole lot it would take three months to go right around the whole, and do everything. You’d come off night work, went on to day work, went off day work, went back on to night. And night work – you’d start night work there at 11 o’clock at night and you’d leave at half past seven in the morning. And it was tough, trying to keep awake. And if you were caught asleep, gone. Some of them sacked immediately, yeh.

“The old Boggo Road, they had a cell with a tub inside. You had a clean tub outside, if you use so they’d swing the clean tub back, had to use the tub, and they were locked in that cell from round about half past four to a quarter to five until half past six in the morning in that cell. There were about 600 prisoners altogether. Most of the cells they got to a stage when they were overloaded. There were three in a cell.

“The prisoners wore dungarees, what they used to call dungarees. I’d just passed the “arrow section”. There were old arrows around, you know arrows on nearly everything, but that was gone past that stage. Some were still wearing them, yeh. They were well clothed, they had four or five blankets, five in the winter, four in the summer. And the food was fairly tough but they got more or less what they called, corn, corn for breakfast, like a porridge, and they were given milk. Each prisoner got a, in those days about half a pint of milk each prisoner. And they got bread, so much bread issued, an issue of bread, jam, tea, sugar to last the week. And midday meal was a hot meal and the evening soup or something like that, they got. But now they’re fed better than a lot of people outside now, yeh. On no account were they allowed a newspaper, no. They got very rough, very crude tobacco, dry, it was – you could buy your own tobacco. If you got punished, your tobacco was taken off you, yeh.

“Some punishents I didn’t like. A lot of officers would go around big-noting themselves. When you locked a prisoner, that meant you take a prisoner doing four or five years and when, in those days, when you reached the half-way mark you were entitled to put in for parole if your conduct warranted it. Well they were locking prisoners up, taking them back, the poor beggars had never been locked up. They didn’t care what happened to the prisoner. I locked very few prisoners up, no. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t do it. You had to have it. You had to have some sort of punishment, but I didn’t agree with the way they carried on – a bit rough and tough the way they handled prisoners some of them. And I said what I thought about it and when I reached the stage where I made sure that it didn’t happen.

“They’d get them in the cell, give them a bit of a touch it up, oh yes. And I wasn’t brought up that way and I everybody knew my ideas. My ideas were well known and I blame the Superintendent because he runs the gaol and he should know what goes on.

“Prisoners had a hot shower once a week, but they could have a cold shower every day.

“The “Silver Tails”, they was the ones who had a good job and were better close to where the, you know, the boss and all that sort of thing, yeh. Well, some could get away with it, others couldn’t, and would use it to their advantage. They didn’t worry me. If you were a chief, you had your office and in those days, a prisoner clerk, and he was a clerk, you wouldn’t let him do everything, but he’d write things down, kept a note for you and all that sort of thing. And in the main office, when I started there, the prison officers, they run their own office but later on about, quite some time after that the outside come and took over from the prisoners. The Public Service, they took it over, yeh.

“The laundry, they done all their own, in those days they used to scrub with these dungarees, they scrubbed with a brush and on the board, but later on they had a big laundry there before I finished, they supplied the hospitals. They done laundry for a whole lot of places. And their bake house, their bake house made beautiful bread. Up in Townsville, it was known for their bread. They had a fellow doing life. They got someone in to show him how to cook bread. They apprenticed him and he made bread and see, they’d only need 60 to 80 loaves or something like that. Oh, beautiful bread. People that lived around there, they’d say – could you get us, try and get the loaf of bread. And they had a butcher. He was a butcher outside, doing life and he was a good butcher. They used to get the bodies and he’d cut them up, cut the steak, cut it right up. He was in for murder. He was a good prisoner, very good prisoner. The easiest ones to handle, the lifers because they had too much to lose, yeh.

“The prisoners had workshops, they had tailor’s shop, boot shop, carpenter’s shop, mat shop. They made our uniforms at one stage. If you were popular with them, they’d make it reasonable. If they didn’t like you, they’d take it out on you in the uniform they made for you.

“If the prisoners played up, they were locked away. They could get seven days. I think that was the limit and they were on half rations and all that sort of thing. So if you locked the prisoner up, see it had to be a serious thing.

“Prisoners made home brew and you’d be watching for it. I laughed one time in the carpenter’s shop. They knew where it come from and it was in there. I went into the carpenter’s shop and they searched it, couldn’t find it. All of a sudden they found it, and where do you think it was? The trade instructor was sitting on it. They had it planted, they found the right spot all right. Nobody thought of looking there. They didn’t care what it tasted like, as long as they got under the weather.

“I treated them the way I thought I should treat them. I didn’t believe in any rough treatment or any of that stuff or locking them up unless it was necessary. I wouldn’t lock them up for anything I couldn’t handle meself. The worst thing you can do in a gaol is to steal off another prisoner. They were all in there for stealing, but to steal off another prisoner that was a crime enough, you’d be ostracised if you done that in gaol. That’s the lowest thing you can do in a gaol is to steal off another prisoner.”

Bill said some prisoners such as child molesters or informers would have to be protected.

“We have to look after them. They got a good thumping as soon as they come in, first chance they got. We’d have to keep an eye on them. We had to protect them, yeh.”

There were a few escapes from Boggo Road during the time Bill was there, including xxxx Halliday in 19xxx and again in 19xxx.

“I was there when Halliday escaped. Well, there wasn’t too many escapes at Boggo Road. I wasn’t on when it happened, but I know how it happened and all that. In my opinion Halliday was not guilty. He may have been guilty, but he was found guilty on admissions made. There’s no way in the world would that prisoner admit to anything, no, no. I remember the Superintendent of the day, coming out to me with the Telegraph and he said “Do you believe that, I don’t.” Where they found him guilty. The police told lies. I know that anybody who knew him, there’s no way. He was a despicable type. He was a type that could get into a bit of mischief. He worked in the carpenter’s shop, a very good carpenter, and that’s where he escaped from.”

There some changes at the prison during World War II.

“It was very few in the gaol. In those days, the gaol would have been half full I suppose. The women, they were brought up into, the only time ever, into Boggo Road. They had a wing for the women in gaol.”

The prison was also used for military prisoners, including those awaiting execution by the Americans. Bill remembers one of them.

“Oh well that was a sad thing, that, Indonesians I think they were and we had five of them and one was to be executed and they wouldn’t allow that in Queensland, and the Americans come across, took him to one of the islands and shot him I think. And all his mates said he was not guilty. And this fellow that we had, he had to be kept in an open observation cell and had to be an officer alongside of him day and night – it’s our rule. A prisoner due to be executed, not to be left on his own and we of a night time, you’d be there, sitting alongside at his door.

“I remember one time a prisoner he just got life. He finished his life sentence in fact and I searched him and he said, oh he was down in the dumps and that. He happened to say something to me. He said “Oh, I’ve lost all me friends.” I said “Listen old fella. Any friends you lost, you never had them in the first place. You don’t lose friends.” I said “Get that out of your head. You haven’t lost your friends. Any you lost, you never had.” And about three months after that night, that I happened to search him. He pulled me up one day and he said “Mr Kearney, can I talk to you?” I said “Yeh.” He said “Remember that night you searched me.” I said “Yes.” He said “I intended to hang meself, and you put the idea out of my head.” He said “I seen the way you put it.” Because they come up to see them.

“You met all different characters, some real hard cases, others, you know. Look a big percentage of people are in gaol because of their mentality. That’s why they’re in gaol, they shouldn’t be in gaol. There was a fella there one time, but he stuck a knife into a prisoner at the back of the neck and he just missed his jugular by oh, so he was under special escort. And I escorted him down the yard and he said something that made me suspicious. I said “Listen, I want you to come back to the cell with me.” And I come back and he pulled this knife on me. He bailed me up with a knife and I thought – here’s a go and I thought he was going to use it and I thought I’ve never kicked a man in me life, but if I kick him – all I was left to do, if he made a move for me, I’d go straight for his groin. You know, I’ve never done it, that’s the lowest act you can do, but I thought, my, you know, that flashed through me mind. And anyhow he finished up giving me the knife. I must have done a bit of talking, I think. He gave me the knife. So the big boss, Bill O’Connor it was, he said to me “Well are you going to charge him?” I said “No.” He said “Why!” I said “No I’m not going to charge him.” And he said “And why aren’t you gonna charge him?” I said “That man’s mental.” He was mental too and I said “There’s no way in the world am I going to put a charge on a man that I consider mental.” And I said “In my opinion, he was mental.” And I said “There’s no way.” “All right,” he said. They got the doctor up and he went off to his home, died in his home, yeh. He shouldn’t have been in gaol in the first place.

“In the early days of Boggo Road, the boys were kept completely away from the adults, were not allowed near adults, for obvious reasons. They went up to Wacol there, mixing in amongst the lot of them. They’re going to change it now, I believe. But Boggo Road, see that’s some good – you had to be 17 years of age to go into, anyone of that age, we got them. We had them in a special yard, right under the tower, and kept well away from all other prisoners, yeh.

“But see today there’s a Board. On that Board, they wouldn’t know anything about prisoners. See in my day, the superintendent and the Comptroller they made the recommendations or non-recommendations. Look some of these Boards they have, what do they know about the place. Look, it amuses me, it’s not only in the prisons. Because what do they know about gaols. They’ve never worked in a gaol, most of them, or any of them. And they make the decisions. It should be done within the public service, by the public service commissioner advised by his understudies, like the Comptroller-General. That’s how it should be done.”

Bill said the “Black Hole” punishment cells weren’t used much in his time.

“They were using them after that for extreme cases, you know. But they were condemned. “

Bill said there was little done to prepaare prisoners for the outside world when they were released.

“They just done their time and when the time was up, out they went. I think that a lot could have been done and should have been done. See I don’t believe in women working in a custodial gaol. That’s no place for a woman. But I do think women do a good job in rehabilitation and in all that area. Because I think they’re more understanding. I think that they’re more understanding, bit softer in nature, better to handle it than a man.”

Bill remembers some memorable prisoners including John Andrew Stuart.

I knew Stuart, oh, yeh. He come in the prison when he was only a boy. We had him there as a boy. And he come from a good family that bloke but he was real tangled up in the underworld and in certain circles it was well known that they were bashed, they signed a statement, they got such a bashing, they signed it. And they knew about it, had something to do with it, but they didn’t do it [the Whiskey Au Go Go fire]. That’s known in criminal circles. See I think he died by accident. He took something he shouldn’t have taken and before they could get out and give him attention and get him right, he’d gone. But his mother was a lovely woman, yeh. And the other bloke, well I didn’t see much of him. I didn’t know much of him, Finch. He married a, she used to come up and visit him. She was a disabled girl and he married her and she left him of course.

“Kopit was a very good prisoner. He killed the people on the train. Now his name was, I don’t know what his name was, but that wasn’t his name you know. Kopit – KO – killed off people in trains, K-O-P-I-T. He was in the train, coming up from the south I think, come through and must have pulled up at the Park Road there, for some reason or other and the conductor, he walked around and he was there, doing a bit of thieving and he caught him in the act, and he hit him over the head with a, hammer or something, killed him. And if he’d have walked off the train, he wasn’t, he come on the train without a ticket. Nobody knew he was on the train. So he just walked off and done that. He was trying to hide his identity. See they found him disguised as a woman. He was trying to hide his identity and they had never a clue that he done it. Never had a clue, no. His sisters used to come up and see he died in gaol. He had very bad septicaemia or something like that. And he was an excellent prisoner, couldn’t fault him. Couldn’t fault him. He worked in the tailor’s shop. He was in the hospital. He finished up in the hospital.

“I retired in ’77.

“At one time I worked under Chief Superintendent Jack Farrell. I worked with him and worked under him and I worked under him at Wacol and. Look I see Jack Farrell, see remember the time of the big flood? Now what Jack Farrell done with a handful of prisoners was never, he done a lot of good work, I never ever heard it mentioned. They had prisoners in tractors, going through where nobody could get and he had plenty of them go in him and he had. He was the Superintendent. He didn’t have to do it. He took about four or five prisoners. They had tractors and they got, see what was happening in Wacol in those years, when that big flood was on, we were making bread non-stop, the prisoners working 24 hours non-stop, making bread. We were supplying milk, we were supplying meat, everything and the people around Goodna hadn’t had a feed, couldn’t get anything to eat. And they were going across, the prisoners were going across in tractors where no traffic no one else could get and delivering bread, and whatever they could to those people. And they took nothing for it. I remember when they, at the finish, who was going to pay for it, and they said – just write it off, write it off, yeh. There was a helicopters landing in part of the gaol, loading up with food and taking it out to places where they, you know. Oh things were bad then. I don’t think people realise just how bad it was up there. I was at Wacol.

“I was a Superintendent at Wacol when I retired in 1977, yeh. Alan Whitney run that. He done a good job there. He had, now there was rehabilitation. There’s another place where rehabilitation was – they closed it down. Look they had cattle, pigs, they had an enormous big garden. They had breeding cattle there. They had prize cattle – they closed it down. You want to see it now, it’s in a – hard to believe it’s just one big mess there now. And no trouble with the prisoners. They can go any time they wanted to, but and I wanted to go once in a while. But they were all satisfied, happy as Larry. They played sport, look if they got into a final, they were allowed to, we let them go to the final. I went one time meself, I took about half a dozen prisoners playing tennis out at, where was it, about six or seven mile away from the gaol. They all come back. One of them escaped, one of them that I had with me he escaped out of the gaol, out of the gaol.

“I learnt a lot about life I suppose. But as I said, now like in the very early days, they weren’t trained at all, officers. Now they train them for about six weeks. They do a good job in that area and I don’t agree with women working in the gaol, no. That’s no place for a woman. They shouldn’t be working there. There’s a lot of places for women in a prison that’s not in the custodial gaol. Meant to be said, all this rough stuff and if a riot started, how would a woman be if a riot, just like the police the same, you see women police out in a riot with a baton and they’d have to look after them, the police. I don’t think the police should have women police out in a riot, do you? There’s plenty of work for them in a police force, tons of places.

“The sad part I found about it [working in the prison], was like a lot of young people, we used to take their description – orphanage, home, Westbrook, gaol. Sad, all they wanted was a bit of affection, yeh. But that’s the sad part. Other than that, there a lot of people – oh what am I doing here? But oh no. A lot come to gaol and they’ll never be anywhere else. Others come and learn their lesson, never see them back again but within the gaol there’s lots of things you see and yeh and learn about life. And sad part about life, when a man gets a sentence, the woman and kids serve the sentence. They’re getting well fed and looked after but who’s looking after them. That’s the sad part about it.

“There’s a lot of good in the modern prison service. I can’t agree with some of it. But you’ve got see, number one is discipline. Look you mightn’t think, I’m a bit easy, but I’m a strong believer n discipline. You’ve got to have it in your own home. Like my mother, I was the eldest of seven. My mother was only a little women, very kind and gentle but when she said “No.” it was no. When she said “yes”, it was yes and we wouldn’t dare. That’s the way we were brought up. Yeh. No two people are alike [prison warders]. I found some very strict men and very good men. I found some of those that I’ve just told you about, well, I know what I thought of them. They were shocking the way that they carried on, that’s in my very early career, they’re shocking. And I think that, you know, it changed a bit. Some of the staff themselves they used to get stuck in and tell them what they thought of them, you know. But they shouldn’t have been allowed to.

“Oh, well it was what I had, that was my life you could say. Look I could have robbed two or three banks (laughs) and done half the lagging and got six times the money, no I – only joking. They always say to me “how’d you come to get that job?” I always say “I either go in there or get a job there”. You know, just joking and they used to take, some of them took me seriously, I think. No, it’s not an easy job. It’s not an easy job by any means, because, you know, you never know. I was lucky, I don’t know how. When I look back over my career, I don’t know how I went without, I never got, no one ever laid a hand on me. I got knocked over trying to handle some poor bugger that, you know, trying to get him into a padded cell for his own safety, a bit hard to handle them then, very hard, yeh. I struck some very good officers and lot of likeable prisoners, but you couldn’t, in the job you can’t get too close to a prisoner, you know. There are some that you depend on. Look, I remember quite well I had – he was a good clerk, very good clerk, fine stamp of a bloke and he was going out and I said to him “now listen mate.” I said “you’re going out,” I said, “now look” I said “you don’t ever come back,” I said “you’ll ruin your” “Look Mr Kearney” he said “I’m getting married.” (laughs) He said “I won’t do the wrong thing by her.” So I’m getting back to my story. All they want is somebody to think something of them. And he was a good type of bloke and I believe him too, yeh. That’s one case that I remember quite well. He said “no I won’t do the wrong thing by her”. He did the wrong thing by others, he’d never do it by her, no.”

(Bill Kearney was interviewed in November 2008).

Bill Kearney died in January 2011.