IN August 1976, Mark Read scored the plum job of H Division billet in Pentridge Prison. He was installed in the cell number one right next to the screw’s box. Unlike other prisoners, Read did not move between cells. He was not subject to the constant cell searches and pat downs that the rest copped. Above all, he had freedom of movement around the division. It was his job to clean the showers and dish out the food, moving up and down with a plastic trolley, accompanied by a screw. The theory was, according to Read, that the most dangerous man in the division was given the billet’s job so they could keep an eye on him. Predictably, Read abused the privilege, using his freedom to launch biological attacks on the entire division.
“I would get a little bit of the old doings (faeces) and drop it in the stew and put a sufficient amount of mustard and Keen’s Curry Powder to disguise the aroma,” he said in an interview in 2000 (Pentridge Village).
“You only need 2 or 3 tablespoons of the old doings to go into the stew, everyone eats heartily, about 24 hours later the whole place comes down with gastro-enteritis,” he said.
Read told different versions of this story. In one he claimed to have made a culture of faeces, phlegm and other material, which after several days sprouted toadstools. He claimed he was visited by members of the National Crime Authority concerned that he was creating biological weapons in Pentridge. However, there is no record of any such a national security scare.
He didn’t tell his handful of friends in the unit that he had crapped in the stew “because a secret shared is a secret lost.” His mentality back then, he explained, was that if you had to get everyone to get one then so be it.
He held the billet’s job right until December and by all reports was doing a good job until “he showed his immaturity during the month and was sacked” according to a progress report. Read claimed he was caught distributing tobacco in the division (smoking was banned in H) but one contemporary recalls the sacking had something to do with “putting foreign objects in the stew.”
As word spread of Read’s culinary stylings, his list of enemies steadily grew. Even those who had been neutral now joined the haters. Food is always a sensitive issue in jail. Most of the riots in Pentridge were caused, or at least ignited, by issues over food. The food in H Division was terrible and quantities miniscule, so for Read to add his “extra ingredients” served only to add insult to indigestion.
At Christmas 1976, H Division inmates were pleased to hear that they would be issued with pork sausages, two per man. However, when Christmas lunch rolled around the sausages did not materialise.
Read was instantly accused of stealing and consuming all the sausages. He protested his innocence: he had been sacked as billet the previous month so had no access to the food. It was hardly surprising Read was the prime suspect, given his record for “tampering” with the food and his prodigious appetite.
In the industry yard, a prominent Painter and Docker John “Piggy” Palmer complained loudly that “Read, the fucking dog, must have eaten them all.”
Read’s popularity was already at a low ebb, but this was intolerable. The next day, when he walked past Palmer in the yard, he dropped him with a heavy right hand.
“Teach you to call me a fucking dog, you cunt,” he roared.
Read always denied stealing the sausages. It’s doubtful whether they ever actually existed. It was a common tactic from jail authorities to withhold treats from prisoners to place pressure on them to conform. If it was a psychological tactic from management, it backfired, setting off a gang war that eventually made H Division ungovernable. The failure of authorities to contain the five-year conflict led to a revolution in prison security and construction, which also in turn failed.
“Piggy” Palmer was well connected, a key member of a gang that controlled Pentridge Prison at the time. These were men with a rich criminal pedigree: murderers, thieves and gangsters from the Painters and Dockers who controlled all the rorts on the waterfront. informer in Victorian history.
In 1976, they were the most popular gang inside, on account of their open defiance of authority. They were spread out all over the prison and had a strong information network. If a rival crossed them , they could get to him no matter what division he was in. Let’s call them the ‘Hungry Boys’ in deference to the purloined pork sausages that sparked the war with Chopper. To Read, the Hungry Boys were just ‘two-bob gangsters’, ‘weak-gutted mice’ who went to water when confronted by a criminal psycho like him. There was a great deal of envy and resentment in his attitude to the Hungry Boys. He had sought to be among them but, once rejected he courted their scorn and fury. It was their arrogance that Read despised. He said they were ‘terrible ambassadors’ for the union, lazy pricks who took phantom pay packets for work they hadn’t done.
To them, Read was a nobody, one of ‘the ordinary blow flies of life’ that needed exterminating. No-one had ever heard of Read until he had got to prison.
In earlier years, the Hungry Boys have got short shrift from the prison guards. They would have systematically bashed the arrogance out of him, but in 1976 life in Hell had changed. Screws could no longer continue the so-called carnival of violence that had played daily in H Division until the early 70s. Inmates were no longer keeping quiet about the bash, and the media was asking questions about what happened behind the grey walls and was prepared to publish the answers. From 1973, prisoners were permitted to make complaints about their treatment direct to the Victorian Ombudsman, rather than going through the charade of talking to prison management or visiting magistrates. Most of the reports to the ombudsman went nowhere, but it held the worst impulses of the staff in check.
Given this, it made sense for screws to use a bloke like Read to do their dirty work. Arming Read and his allies against the Hungry Boys made sense (even though former H Division guards deny it happened). Read made it abundantly clear he was on their side. He once even requested permission from the governor to worship him ahead of God. According to Read, the governor granted the request, noting it was the first sensible one he had heard in seventeen years.
The Hungry Boys made a powerful enemy when he attacked the governor of security, Jimmy Quinn, in November 1976. The incident followed a murder in B Division. According to one account, the inmate was killed simply because a group of Hungry Boys were drinking ‘a homemade rot gut which included a dash of copying fluid to give it a bouquet’. The victim and another inmate were playing chess in a cell adjacent to a common area where the rotgut drinkers were playing snooker. The cell door was open, which brought them into peril. The Hungry Boys were steadily drinking their chemical concoction, ‘growing more psychotic with each plastic mug they drank’.
One chess player went to the lavatory and returned to find his opponent dead in a pool of blood. The alarm was raised and all prisoners were ordered into the exercise yard. One of the Hungry Boys, still affected by the hooch, saw Governor Quinn talking to other staff and launched himself at him, smashing him in the face and breaking his nose. This sparked a mass brawl between staff and inmates that lasted for ten minutes, until the lags were all driven into the yard and the gate locked behind them. Bashing Quinn made the man a hero to his mates for a while but it was a very poor strategic move.
When members of the Hungry Boys were moved to H Division after killing the chess player, conflict with Read was inevitable. Read told a story about how it began. He had been waiting to see the chief of H Division just as screws were taking the Hungry Boys’ leader to see him about a request. Without warning, Read attacked him and the screws did nothing to stop the fight. In fact, Read claimed that the screws also laid into the man with their batons. In Read’s version, the attack was a set-up by the screws.
Despite this attack taking place right in front of guards, no disciplinary action was taken against him. His January 1977 progress report noted only that he was ‘involved in disturbances in this division. Just makes the grade for satisfactory report.’
The Hungry Boys declared Read to be a screw’s lackey, a dog, an informer, and soon the entire division, except Read’s handful of mates, echoed the insult. It was perhaps not surprising if Read’s version of events is correct. Your enemy attacks you in front of the guards and they let it happen and even help Chopper to flog you. There could be no other explanation than Read was ragingly sweet with authority. The informer tag stuck to Read for the rest of his life. By March 1977, with the Overcoat War hotting up, Read was sent back to the labour yards, as much for his own protection as that of others. He spent the next four months breaking rocks, but had the company of allies like Danny James and Jimmy Loughnan.
There was nothing else the guards could do but keep him isolated from his rivals. His report noted: ‘Will never be any different, any trouble he will be in it.’ In April: ‘. . . same problem, cannot get on with fellow prisoners for long’.
H Division was descending into a different kind of hell. The screws had once ruled by fear and secrecy, but now their authority was dissolving. The screws still beat the newcomers, but that no longer worked on the hard men.
At night, Hungry Boys taunted the guards from their cells, according to Read. He knew where their families lived, he growled. People were going there right now to get their wives and kids. Their daughters were getting special treatment: rape, torture and a slow death. The guards believed that Read was a psychopath but they trusted his word that he would never hurt them, much less hunt down their families. He was the lesser of two evils.
According to Ted Eastwood and other contemporaries, Governor Quinn had sanctioned the protection of Mark Read and the arming of his forces. A selection of about two dozen deadly weapons was secreted in H Division at any one time, according to estimates of various inmates. These included tomahawks, ice picks,shivs made of razor blades and toothbrushes, butcher’s knives, pliers and hammers. These items had been carried into H Division over the years and stayed, being passing on to new prisoners as their owners left the division. There was enough hardware in the drains and toilets, crammed behind loose bricks and cracks in the bluestones, to arm most of the unit. A biro stabbed into an enemy’s eye was effective enough.
According to Read, the attacks on the Hungry Boys were relentless. Whenever they spotted one of the enemy it would be on. They attacked spontaneously whenever a cell door was left open or rivals happened to pass each other in the tunnel en route to the yards. The vast majority of criminal assaults were still committed by guards on prisoners, but there was now the prospect of violence between the Read and Hungry Boy factions.
The screws could not stop the conflict altogether but they could regulate the outcomes to suit their preferences. One day Piggy Palmer was in shower yard number 1 alone, when Read appeared, with a broad smile spreading across his face. ‘Hello, Piggy,’ he said, quietly. The screw had let him in, knowing that Palmer was on his own. Read was under instructions that he had an open go at Palmer but there was to be no blood, which still left a wide range of options. Palmer sunk to his knees, cowering at the sight of Read. There was no way he could hold his own against this leering, crazy giant. He braced himself for pain. If he didn’t resist, maybe he would survive it. Instead, Read looked down at his groin.
‘You know, it’s been a while, Piggy,’ he said, with a lascivious chuckle. Palmer watched in horror as Read undid his jeans and took his penis in hand. He thought about making Palmer suck his cock but perhaps there was a shred of manhood left in Palmer. He might just bite it off, rather than suffer the indignity of swallowing his enemy’s seed. So he rubbed it all over Palmer’s face. Palmer closed his eyes and whimpered in terror. According to Read, Palmer was never the same again. Friends of enemies became targets now. Read took a steel vice handle to the head of Bobby Barron simply because they thought he had stolen the razor from the shaving kit that all the lags shared. He justified the pre-emptive strike because Barron, a double murderer, had been a dockie and therefore close to the Hungry Boys.
The screws could do little more than keep Read away from everyone until he was paroled in August 1977. It was normally unheard of for a parolee to be released direct from H Division; to send a man straight from the brutality and isolation of H straight onto the street was asking for trouble. Most would be transitioned to freedom through the mainstream divisions of the prison, but not Read. He had four months straight in the labour yards from March to June, then spent about six weeks making brooms in the industry yard, and then he was pitched straight onto the street. It had been ‘a good month to his credit’, according to his official progress report.
No doubt the Slot was a quieter place without him.