Jailhouse Blues by Murray Cook

This article was written by Murray Cook, a fellow teacher at Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 27/8/16.  He sums it up very well and adds a human element to our case.

Jailhouse Blues: Premier’s decision will rock may lives

Pottering around the Blue Mountains Wintermagic festival recently, I heard a busker singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door. I rolled my eyes at my girl and we laughed knowing how many times I’d played that song in my 21 years of teaching music at Long Bay Jail.

As we approached, the busker put his guitar aside and enveloped me in a crushing hug. “Muzz,” he cried. “How great to see you on the outside.”

It was Big Jay, one of my ex-students. Flash back five years to when he’d threatened to punch my lights out in an angry rage. Now here he was – a well presented young man beaming with joie de vivre, playing and singing like a devil (and still using the chord charts I gave him).

On his release from jail, he spent his first cheque on a cheap guitar, caught a westbound train, found accommodation in a local dive and commenced busking in the railway tunnel. After a while the local publican, impressed at his punctual 5am starts, offered him a job – picking up glasses – and a room. A year later he was engaged to the barmaid. He offered to shout me a beer later. He was making great money.

These are the sorts of Shawshank Redemption-style stories we see teaching in jails. These are the sorts of stories that may come to an end in the next three months, thanks to our Premier Mike Baird’s decision to make nearly all professionally qualified correctional teachers in NSW redundant. All on the say so of consultants KPMG and corrections minister David Elliott. We are to be replaced by inexperienced, underqualified “trainers”, furnished by a yet-unnamed private provider.

I’ve always joked that the music industry is the only one in which it can be good to have a criminal record. It’s so difficult for guys like Jay – bright, hard-working but hamstrung by their poverty, abuse-stricken upbringing, deeds done out of desperation or just off-their chops amokness – to come out of the big house, find work, support and readjust to a society so different to the one they’d left years before.

Jay came barging into my class because he loved music and because he was trying to get out of the yard, some “gangstas” were after him. Six months later he was writing his own songs. He often told me his school horror stories, which meant he had minimal literacy. I tentatively suggested he try literacy classes to help his lyrical flow.

I introduced him to our literacy teacher, a UNSW literacy professor. She took him under her wing and soon he was writing poetry and cathartic stories about his life. He joined art and IT classes, eventually designing a cover for a CD he recorded in our makeshift studio and sold it in our Boomgate Gallery, making enough to keep him and his mates in cheap tobacco every “Buy-Up”.

Jay was one of the lucky ones. I’ve had students who were bashed to death, or who gave up and topped themselves or who ended up in psych wards. I’ve taught Bra boys and barristers. I’ve had many students, particularly Koori, who went on to study music, production, sound mixing and recording at TAFE and other institutions post release. Some have formed bands or became roadies. The self-esteem they gained from involvement in education is incalculable.

It’s not just about statistics, competencies, outcomes – despite the crushing weight of evidence for the anti-recidivistic effects of prison education. It’s about that tipping point in a person’s life when they can see that redemption, dreams and hope are possible. It’s about the long-term trust they build with qualified, compassionate, no-bullshit, courageous teachers. It’s about accredited courses leading to recognised qualifications. It’s about the welcoming atmosphere in the education units dotted about the complex, and the camaraderie and symbiosis between teachers, psychs, welfare, drug and alcohol counsellors and custodial staff. The black humour. The experience. The unflappability and acceptance of the inmates as people, not “clients” or “stakeholders”.

In 21 years I’ve seen and experienced the most astonishing things teaching in jail. I’ve changed for the better and helped people change their lives for the better, too. I’ll be very sad to go. But I will not go without a fight.

Musician Murray Cook has played with Midnight Oil, Mentals and Warumpi band and is a music teacher at Long Bay Correction Facility.

Photo from SMH story – Murray is the guitarist on the right

I agree with everything Murray says.  I too have seen lives transformed throughout my years of teaching and I have learnt so much. I believe that education is valuable for everyone and especially for inmates housed in correctional centres.

I have posted a few times about what is happening in my world about planned outsourcing of education which ultimately means that my job is no more.  I could take their very kind offer (insert sarcasm) of applying for a downgraded clerical role (reduced pay, conditions and role) but after 22 years as a teacher in this very challenging environment I think I’d rather cut my losses and run.   I’m very opposed to the Government making teaching staff redundant in gaols and so I must fight on for our jobs.

Read more:

My stories on the subject can be found in the following links if you’d like to read more:

What price Education in gaols  – my article which was published online 29/7/16 and in full in NSW Teachers Federation Education journal 22/8/16

Education beats crime 

Not a good week 

Buzzfeed interview

Partners in Crime

What can you do to help:

There is a petition that you can print off and sign here and an email can be sent to the Minister from this link if you are so inclined. (No pressure). I appreciate your support over the past few months and am determined to fight on for as long as is required.

I must point out that I am the Vice President of the Corrective Services Teachers Association with NSW Teachers Federation.


Public education beats crime every day

PS. Since publishing this post there have been more announcements from the government about hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for rehabilitation programs in gaols but yet they can’t (or won’t) keep the experienced, trusted and knowledgeable teachers who are already in place!!  I am fiercely angry about this.

William Shakespeare’s QuoteThough she be but little, she is fiercethis fits me very well!


23 Replies to “Jailhouse Blues by Murray Cook”

  1. Deb, its always amazing to read about your real-life job. so many of us – myself included – hide behind faceless avatars and pictures of tantalising food or the latest adventure travel – but this is real life. and what a real life. Murray’s story was amazing – well written, brilliant, and a beautiful advocate for people
    on the wrong side of the tracks. What an amazing story about Jay. All Jay wanted was a chance at a normal life, and thanks to the publican, he got it.
    How many dont get that chance?

    Yes, fight for your job Deb, not for you, but on PRINCIPLE. We will stand beside you. I’ll be writing that email.

    Our governments all need a good shake up. Let’s hope we can turn them round on this issue.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for your heartfelt reply. I never used to write anything about my work but this issue has tipped me over the edge. It is a difficult thing to do but I am proud of what I’ve achieved over the years and so many others do great work that no-one ever hears about. I really appreciate your support and interest in this story. He did a great job of expressing what it is we do…and more importantly, why we do it. xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If your government is anything like ours, the only thing that matters is spending less money on “services” and demonising those who need them. That those services actually achieve good outcomes is irrelevant. I actually heard our PM say recently — about a large-scale, peer-reviewed research project commissioned by one of his own departments — that the government “didn’t agree with it”. And no-one asked him if he understands what research actually is, or on what basis he “didn’t agree with it.” The media just moved on to the next story. Aaagh! Good luck with your fight. I hope against hope for a good outcome. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That story brings tears to my eyes. I don’t understand government cuts at all. I don’t understand how they determine their financial priorities. I can’t for one moment being to know the heart break and frustration of you and your colleagues Debbie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Annie, it is a brilliant piece that tells it the way it is. I’m not giving up just yet though. I’m glad that I’m able to share what it’s like teaching in my world as I normally don’t talk about it much outside of with my colleagues. Thanks again, I’ll be fine but the system is set for a big fail. X


  3. Debbie Thanks for sharing Murray’s article. It illustrates perfectly the importance of education in the correctional services system and for people fighting social disadvantage. Jay’s story is inspiring. The team relationships and trust is so important, I can’t believe the government could be so stupid thinking such a model could work. Keep fighting. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

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