Counts and encounters by Wil Patterson

by Wil Patterson author of Mr Ordinary Goes To Jail

Today is the second Monday in December. Monday’s at Beechworth are one of my favourite days because we get to leave the prison.

On a Monday a small group of kitchen workers leave the jail, with a guard of course, and spend most of the day cooking at the community centre. On a normal week we make around 150 meals and freeze them for the Beechworth Meal on Wheels programme. All the inmates involved get a kick out of helping and putting back into the community, but if you ask them the first thing they’ll say they enjoy is missing the count.

At Beechworth inmates are counted five times a day:
7:30am – count in the unit
8:30am – morning count
4:00pm – afternoon count
6:00pm – dinner count
8:30pm – night count in the unit

The three daytime counts occur in a breezeway that runs between the programmes building and the library. You find your unit letter (units are named after local towns, but narrowed down to the first letter A,B,C). Behind each letter are eight dots and each man stands on a dot. The more senior members of the unit get to stand at the back. Once all the inmates are lined up two officers walk along the line and headcount. It's quite a quick process if everything works. If someone misses count it can take ages. Everyone stands around waiting, and being quiet, while the errant convict is tracked down.

There used to be only four counts at Beechworth, 6:00pm count was a reasonably new event. The dinner count was added after inmates ‘escaped’ one afternoon. Escape at Beechworth would be a very simple process. There is one real fence in the whole prison, it’s around the visitor centre, and it’s mostly there to keep visiting kids from running into the car park. If you want to escape Beechworth prison you basically walk past the end of the walking track, onto Flat Rock Road, and out into the world, which is exactly what these inmates did. An article in The Border Mail from 2013 said “There have been four escapes since 2005, including one where a prisoner caught a taxi to Melbourne with only 22 days left on his sentence, and another who wandered into the bush before getting cold feet and returning a few hours later.”

The story I heard about the man who initiated 6pm count was that he was denied the opportunity to attend his grandmother’s funeral in Melbourne. He walked out after finishing work one afternoon, caught a train to Melbourne, and was arrested, without resisting, straight after his granny’s service. It added time to his sentence, but told his mates back at Beechworth it was worth it. Since that escape the 6pm counted was added to ensure we were all still there after work and before dinner. That was kind of how things worked in prison. The actions of one, or a few individuals, would affect the ongoing lives of everyone else.

It happened in lots of little ways at Beechworth. One was that the day I arrived it was announced at 6pm count there would be no more footballs available for inmates. This was because a few days before, when it was raining, two inmates decided on a game of kick-to-kick in the gym. They broke a light, so the authority’s response was no more footballs. Locking the public toilets to stop toilet paper theft was another, and the most extreme was draining the small dam to stop inmates fishing for carp.

This Monday in December was different. Normally spending a day cooking in town meant you missed 4pm count, and if it was a busy time maybe even 8:30am count. Today we were going to the community centre to cook a pizza lunch for all the volunteers who worked at the community centre and op shop. We were catering their Christmas break up. Last year, we had been told in whispers, they invited the inmates to eat with them as a way of saying thanks, so we were all hoping for fresh pizza and some time in the sun.

What happened was even better. Cheryl, the lady who ran the community centre, had arranged for several locals to come to the lunch specifically to share their stories of how having meals available made a difference to their lives.

The first lady we met was Tammy. Tammy was around 35 years old, and had been living in the Beechworth area most of her life. She had three kids, all under ten. In 2013 Tammy had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At the start her outlook wasn’t great. When she was told she needed a double mastectomy her husband decided enough was enough and left her. In her jovial country forthright way she explained “so I lost three useless lumps of fat - my boobs and my idiot husband!”

Tammy had wanted to meet the men who cooked the prepared meals for the community.  “It makes such a difference to me,” she explained. “To know that a couple days a week I don’t have to worry about dinner. The kids get a delicious meal and I actually get time to spend with them once we’ve eaten. Me and the kids have even turned it into an event. We pretend like its take away, they get to choose their own meal from the freezer, and the older ones get the table set and ready. I just wanted you to know, what you’re doing here matters. You are good men.”

The second local we met was Murray. He was in his seventies and was the full time carer for his wife, who had dementia. Cheryl explained to me, before Murray and I started chatting, that he collected four dinner meals a week. He took them to feed his wife, and he refused to take any meals for himself. “I can take care of myself,” Murray had explained to Cheryl, “I don’t need charity.”

He had gone on to explain to Cheryl that he appreciated the meals because it meant he knew his wife was getting variety, veggies, and filling food. No matter how much Cheryl worked on him Murray refused to accept food for himself. Each week he would come into the centre and collect his four meals, thank Cheryl and leave.

When I spoke to Murray he told me, “You boys do good work here. You touch peoples lives. Just in case you don’t think you are making a difference, you are.” We went on to talk about prison (he’d been in Pentridge for a while when he was younger after an alcohol-fuelled bar fight went horribly wrong), love (Murray had been married to his wife for forty years but in his words, in love with her at least five years before that) and lots of other small and irrelevant things.

As I sat in the garden behind the Beechworth community centre, with the smell of pizza cooking wafting in the air, and the happy conversations going on around me I thought, “Missing count is great, but counting to other people is better – much better, it actually makes this ridiculous journey feel worthwhile, if just for an afternoon.”

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