The Long Bay Gaol Riot
8 SEPTEMBER 1985
It had to come sooner or later, it was inevitable. The event I’d been gearing myself up for since joining the Malabar Emergency Unit (MEU) ten months ago had arrived. The 8th of September 1985 was a crisp, clear spring day and around midday the MEU was placed on stand-by following numerous reports that things were hotting up at Long Bay’s Central Industrial Prison. The gaol was at boiling point due to severe overcrowding and the fact that, during the past few months, five prison officers had been assaulted. During this time the MEU had been placed on stand-by several times only to be stood down without getting a start.
Katingal’s close proximity to the Central Industrial Prison made it the ideal location for the command post and holding area. Following the briefing, we were grouped into six-man squads and I was given the job as one of my squad’s gas men. This meant that as well as my normal riot equipment I would be carrying a shoulder bag containing ten types of tear-gas grenades. The other gas man was the squad leader and he was equipped with a Federal gas gun that was capable of firing various types of tear-gas projectiles.
Once the squads were sorted out, we continued going over the relevant gaol-riot plans until we knew them backwards. To eliminate any last-minute hiccups I double-checked my gear and adjusted the pins on my gas grenades so that I could deploy them quickly under stress. The squad leader was one of the most experienced operators in the MEU and he was the only member of the squad with any previous gaol-riot experience — the rest of us were cleanskins. The unit’s senior men continued to reassure the younger, inexperienced operators by telling us what to expect and insisting that everything would be fine as long as we worked together as a team and stuck to the gaol-riot plan.
Although we were first-timers, and petrified at the thought of what awaited us inside the Central Industrial Prison, none of us was about to let anyone down, least of all ourselves. Each of us had worked very hard over the past ten months and had earned the right to be there, and we were ready to do whatever we had to do to get the job done.
I looked around the holding area and took comfort from the composition of the other squads: there were plenty of seasoned veterans on deck to lead the way. The time passed slowly as I waited nervously for the prison’s lunchtime ‘lock-in’, which came and went without incident. The next deadline was the evening lock-in, scheduled to take place at approximately 4 p.m.
The tension continued to mount as the deadline approached and the squads were ordered to ‘stand to’. You could sense the urgency of the men as they quickly geared up and completed one final ‘comms’ (communications) check before declaring themselves ready to go; after five hours of waiting around on stand-by the squads were edgy and ready to roll. I could feel the adrenaline starting to kick in and took a series of long, deep breaths in an effort to try to steady myself. As I stood waiting, I could hear the filter diaphragms on my M17 gas mask as they flapped open and shut to the rhythm of my breathing pattern. I pushed everything out of my mind, and concentrated solely on the riot plans and the personal tasks I’d been assigned during the briefing. After all, these were what would get me through in the end.
At around 4 p.m. the call we’d been waiting for came through from the Central Industrial Prison. It was on. There were 400 maximum security crims standing out on the prison square, refusing to go back to their cells for the evening lock-in. As a precautionary measure, the prison guard had been stepped up in the towers and also above the gaol gatehouse. Issued with Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifles and extra ammunition, these officers’ brief was to bolster the security of the goal perimeter and provide overall containment. The stage was now set.
With the seriousness of the situation confirmed, things began to escalate rapidly as the squads were ordered to board the idling vehicles that were standing by in the compound. The drivers threw them into gear and red-lined them as we roared out of the compound and headed towards the Central Industrial Prison. Within three minutes we were de-bussed and formed up outside the gaol’s main gate, ready to go in. After a brief wait the squads were directed to move inside the gaol gatehouse, and as we entered we caught our first glimpses of the shit-fight that was unfolding. Every crim in the gaol stood assembled at the far end of the square, a number of them screaming out for us to come in and have a go. The superintendent of the Central Industrial Prison had formally acknowledged that the gaol was out of control and he had handed over responsibility to the superintendent of the special response units.
Emu, the officer-in-charge of the MEU, directed us to move from the gatehouse and form up inside the gaol proper. I felt the adrenaline kick in even harder, my heart was thumping like a bass drum. Once inside the gaol the squads formed up in an extended line formation across the front of the square, directly facing the defiant inmates standing at the opposite end. At this point my body was in overdrive and I continued to suck in the big ones in an effort to get as much air as possible into my lungs. My chest was heaving; sweat running freely down my face, a pool of water was forming in the bottom of my M17 gas mask.
The atmosphere was electric as the 400 maximum-security prisoners stood there yelling and screaming abuse at us, some wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses in an effort to reduce the effects of the tear gas. This was it. You could sense it. There would be no standing down from this one without a fight.
The squads watched on while the superintendent of the special response units directed the rioters to move peacefully into the adjoining yards. The crims ignored the direction and with this the superintendent gave the final proclamation that physical force and chemical agents (tear gas) would be used to restore order to the gaol. All the talk in the world wasn’t going to change a thing now. Negotiations had failed and the crims had made up their minds, leaving us with no other option than to use force.
Adding to the physical reactions I was already experiencing, I noticed my legs were beginning to shake. This was the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome in full swing. With the superintendent finally giving the order to advance, the tense standoff erupted. After such a prolonged build-up it was almost a relief to receive the green light and to be able to go in and get on with it.
The squads began to advance across the square, still in extended line formation, and headed straight for the angry rioters waiting at the other end. As soon as we moved off, the fear seemed to disappear. It was as if a switch had been flicked on, enabling my legs to stop shaking and my breathing to regulate. I was operating on another level.
As we continued to advance, some of the prisoners hurled rocks at us. Seconds later I heard a loud bang. I wasn’t sure what it was or where it had come from, but it sure sounded like gunfire. Under the circumstances I figured it must have been a gas round fired from a Federal gas gun by one of the squads’ gas men. My immediate and instinctive reaction was to quickly pull the pin out of my first-blast dispersion grenade and hurl it thirty metres directly across the square into the mass of the rioting inmates. As the grenade hurtled through the air I watched it tumble end over end towards the crims and waited anxiously for the fuse count to elapse. Sure enough — bang— off it went, right on cue. The grenade exploded perfectly, instantaneously dispersing a large white cloud of tear gas that engulfed a section of the rioters and sent them running for cover in all directions.
The assault was now on in earnest and tear gas was being deployed in all directions. As it wafted about in the air above the square, the clear blue sky began to cloud over. We continued the assault as the blurred images of the crims moved about through the clouds of tear gas. They were still easily identifiable, though, with their tattooed bodies and prison-issue green clothing. Some of them had a look of doom etched across their faces as they cried and cowered in an effort to avoid the mayhem; others, however, seemed to revel in the moment. Full of anger, aggression and resentment, they frothed at the mouth and ran about in packs like wild dogs.
The initial deployment of tear gas had been so effective that a considerable number of the rioters had run from the square, seeking refuge in the adjoining yards, where they were secured and kept out of the way. The squads were now engaged in hand-to-hand combat sorting out the remaining crims that still wanted to go on with it. Frequent shot-like sounds could be heard ringing out above the screams as another baton strike found its mark. Each strike was accompanied by the distinctive and familiar blunt thud that occurs when a baton connects with human flesh and bone.
As we approached the entrance to 4 Wing another group of prisoners stood waiting. I quickly pulled the pin and tossed another blast-dispersion grenade in among them, which sent them scrambling for the sanctuary of the adjoining yards. After a somewhat shaky start I was now settling into the riot and performing as I’d hoped I would. At this point the majority of the inmates had given up the fight and were secured and under guard in the adjoining yards. Their main concern now was to try to regain their composure as they continued to cough and splutter from the effects of the tear gas.
In what seemed like minutes we swiftly rounded up and restrained the last few rioters, and they too were placed under guard in the adjoining yards. Once this was done, the riot was essentially over. Order had been restored to the Central Industrial Prison and now anyone who had been injured was evacuated for medical treatment. With the riot over, the tear gas quickly began to dissipate and the clear blue sky returned.