I went to Clarence Correctional Centre in Grafton to visit my friend Kathy on Saturday. She moved there at the start of the year and I thought it was about time I checked out her new digs.
Grafton is a very, very long way from Sydney, almost six and a half hours in a car. I drove to Coffs Harbour on the Friday night to stay with my friend Tracy on her property in the hinterland, then we hit the road at 8.15am the next morning … after I took some happy snaps for my Drinks Digest Insta story with Lacy, one of her beautiful horses.
Each prisoner at Clarence Correctional Centre is only allowed one visit a week and it’s just 50 minutes long. So it’s hardly surprising that most inmates don’t see much of friends and family.
On the upside, the jail is new and modern and progressive. They’re starting a choir and are teaching the inmates to cook and various other things. The staff were all really helpful and friendly.
They’re also very conscientious about their security. So, just in case you’re thinking about visiting, I thought it would be handy if you had a checklist of things not to bring:
- Any objects that might cause embarrassment, eg sex toys
- Mobile phones
- Spliffs and other illicit substances
- Renault Capturs
While some of those items are self explanatory, it’s probably worth me going through the list in a little more detail.
I was temperature tested at the entrance to the visitors’ centre, but the guard was so busy nattering with us that he forgot to check my footwear. Another visitor – who was combining a family holiday with a jail visit, who needs the Big Banana when you have a maximum security facility to tour with the kids? – pointed out that I wouldn’t be let into the jail in thongs. Something about OH&S, although it doesn’t apply to the prisoners, who were all happily flip-flopping around.
Fortunately I had some Converse in the car, so I popped back outside and put them on, then returned to the waiting room.
I had my irises photographed and they tried to scan my fingerprints, but it wasn’t working. So the guard told me to rub my finger behind my ear – to get a bit of oil on it – and try again.
My first thought was how many other visitors have rubbed behind their ears and touched that scanner? Followed by hand sanitiser would be awesome right now.
After tracking down a hand sanitiser pump pack at the entrance to the visitors’ area, I was waylaid by two burly guards, who announced that I’d been chosen for a random handbag and car search.
There’s something about being randomly chosen for a handbag and car search by burly guards that makes you feel guilty.
My brain went into panic mode, worrying about whether illicit drugs might be found in my car. Logic told my brain that it was highly improbable there were illicit substances in the car since my nickname was “Operation Noah” in my 20s. So my brain decided to worry about the god-awful mess instead and the possibility that just about anything could be buried in the humus in the boot.
The security guard assured me it couldn’t be as bad as the car he’d searched on Friday – when he opened the middle console, cockroaches started swarming in all directions. While that sounds gross, I wouldn’t put it past cockroaches to take up residence in my car, considering the swathe of half-eaten teenager snacks that are scattered throughout it.
The guard handed me a series of half-empty drink containers from my car to pour into the garden and then sent the sniffer dog through it.
I passed. Phew.
Then it was handbag search time – I would advise heavily editing your handbag before your visit. We were ushered into a little room, the door was closed and the guards informed us they were wearing body cameras that were filming everything. I had another mini freak-out about the possible contents of my bag. Fortunately I wasn’t in possession of anything contraband or embarrassing, although my overactive brain was quite ready to believe that I was, which sent my pulse rate straight through the roof. My friend Tracy blithely assured them that she didn’t have anything naughty either. Two seconds later, one of the guards had a Swiss Army Knife keychain dangling from his finger that he’d discovered.
Ooooops. Soz. Forgot about that little ‘ol knife.
Also, there’s no point taking a mobile phone with you to Clarence Correctional Centre because a) they block all the signals and b) if you try to use it anyway, they can detect it and you get in big trouble.
Finally, it was time to stand legs and arms akimbo for our full-body scans. I passed that too, then the guard announced I’d been chosen for a random drug test. Are you effing kidding me? At this point all the other visitors were starting to look at me a bit strangely because I was the only one being singled out for absolutely everything. Fortunately there were no internal examinations in the offing, despite the extravagant donning of rubber gloves at various intervals, or I’d probably have been randomly selected for one of those too.
Prison visits still have a heavy emphasis on COVID safety despite the lack of locally acquired cases, so we were handed face masks and told we were only allowed to fist bump, no hugging.
We were the only people in the women’s visiting room, so we were pretty raucous. The 50-minute visit went by in a flash and then it was time to drive all the way back to Sydney again, which is where the biggest thing you shouldn’t take to Grafton comes into play: my car.
Everything was ticketty-boo for the first half of the journey, I had a Guzman & Gomez burrito for my lunch in Coffs, got a coffee in Kempsey and bought a Golden Gaytime for afternoon tea in Heatherbrae.
I thought I was on the home stretch as I passed the Gosford turn off but, as the car was climbing the hill towards Calga, multiple warning lights started flashing, including the spanner symbol light, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and traction control system warning light, Toxic Fume Filter System Warning Light and a hill start assist warning message. A few seconds later the car carked it.
I rolled onto a tiny piece of concrete next to a rock wall and pray I wasn’t going to get collected by one of the many trucks hurtling past.
I rang DD in a complete panic and he suggested I turn off the car, give it 10 minutes to reboot, and go somewhere safe to wait. I sent him a photo to show how not safe it was to get out of my car. So I put my hazard lights on and prayed instead.
After 10 minutes, the car started with no warning lights and I drove for a couple of minutes before it carked it again. Fortunately, there was an off ramp and I could coast down into Calga, where I pulled up and waited for the engine to reboot. It did, but this time it only made it as far as the Calga on-ramp to the freeway. I pulled onto another concrete verge, put my hazard lights on, prayed and called the NRMA.
Once I explained the situation they sent a Transport NSW team called Driver Aid Services to save me. The truck pulled up and put lots of flashing lights on to lower the risk I’d be killed and keep me company while we waited for a tow truck. They were so lovely and said I should call them straight away if I ever got into difficulty on a freeway again on 131 700.
When the tow truck driver arrived, he loaded up my car and drove me to a toilet stop to wait for the NRMA. When we arrived it was pitch dark and we both agreed that maybe leaving me there wasn’t such a great idea. It would be an hour or two before the NRMA guy arrived, he would likely not be able to fix the car and then I’d have to wait a couple of hours for another tow truck.
So I shelled out $250 to be towed home. Well, I got him to tow the car to the local Renault repair place and then drop me home. He was a really nice bloke, who had a long drive back to the Hunter Valley ahead of him.
This morning I will be walking to the Renault repair place and going ABSOLUTELY POSTAL.
I am not over-dramatising – for once – when I say I literally could have died on the freeway on Saturday night.
As regular readers of HouseGoesHome know, my Renault Captur has been a total lemon since the moment I bought it. Within the first year numerous pieces of the interior had broken off and the driver’s side window spent six months out of action. Within 18 months the car needed two litres of oil every 2-3 months, which the dealership said was within the manufacturer’s guidelines. The computer chip for the gearbox failed when I was driving across the Harbour Bridge one day, which was also pretty terrifying. The computer chip to open the petrol cap failed last year. I could go on.
The Renault is now out of warranty, but I will be demanding that the service desk print out the history of the car and we will be going through its endless problems together in fine detail. I will be asking if they really think that it’s acceptable that one car has so many things go wrong.
I was very, very tired – and very, very grumpy – when I finally got home at 8pm on Saturday night.
So much for my week being drama free. Ah, well, I got a couple of peaceful days.
And now I don’t have a car.
Song of the day: The Beatles “Baby you can drive my car”