If you're looking out over a sea of dangerous criminals, and you've got to pick one to trust, always choose a murderer.

That's the advice of former prison officer, Steve Bergervoet, who spent 32 years working in Victoria's Won Wron and Langi Kal Kal correctional centres.

"90 per cent of the murderers you have in prison are in on a one-off offence. They were cleanskins before they came to jail. It was just a spur of the moment thing. And murderers are generally better behaved than a lot of the prisoners are," Bergervoet told the On Guard podcast.

 

Former prison officer Steve Bergervoet introduced the Raptor release program at the jail where he worked which saw inmates tasked with hand-rearing birds and releasing them. Picture: Nicole Cleary
Former prison officer Steve Bergervoet introduced the Raptor release program at the jail where he worked which saw inmates tasked with hand-rearing birds and releasing them. Picture: Nicole Cleary

"They've been in for a long time, they know how to make the system work for them."

Sex offenders are also notably easygoing. They're not criminals when it comes to thieving and killing and using drugs," Bergervoet said.

"They're in there for sexual offences and they're a different type of prisoner because a lot of them are very well-educated. But you've got to be very careful because they are also very manipulative," Bergervoet, who dealt predominantly with sex offenders at Langi Kal Kal, a dedicated "protection" prison, said. (It's too dangerous for most sex offenders to be placed in the mainstream prison population where other inmates despise the offence-type.)

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"At Langi Kal Kal we had a fair few priests and teachers. These are people with university degrees … So you've got to be very careful with them because a lot of officers don't have the same education standards … they run rings around them."

However it's drug-addicted inmates that cause the most grief.

"Junkies are a big problem in prison, because they're forever trying to get drugs in," Bergervoet, 69, said.

 

Langi Kal Kal prison where Mr Bergervoet worked. Picture: Jake Nowakowski
Langi Kal Kal prison where Mr Bergervoet worked. Picture: Jake Nowakowski

A staunch believer in rehabilitation, the prison farms where Bergervoet worked were the last stop for inmates - many of whom had spent more than a decade inside - before they were released back to society.

It's here Bergervoet helped facilitate a groundbreaking program where formerly violent, dangerous men were tasked with caring for 'birds of prey'.

 

Hugo Weaving, Don Hany, Mark Leonard Winter and Xavier Samuel in a scene from the film Healing
Hugo Weaving, Don Hany, Mark Leonard Winter and Xavier Samuel in a scene from the film Healing

Birds such as wedgetail eagles, owls and hawks which had suffered injuries, including being shot or hit by cars, were initially rescued and treated by nearby Healesville Sanctuary.

Then, once partially recovered, the sanctuary would entrust them to the inmates to rear them to release.

The inspiring program, which ran for a decade before Won Wron's closure in 2004, also became impetus for the 2014 film, Healing, starring Hugo Weaving.

 

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"Some of these guys had never looked after anything before. They hadn't ever had anything to care for, so they loved it," Bergervoet said.

"None of the prisoners that worked there have ever really reoffended, which was quite a feather in our cap."

It's an impressive claim, considering Australian recidivism rates currently sit at 54.9 per cent, according to a 2020 report from the Australian Productivity Commission, which cited more than half of the prisoners released from custody in 2016-17 were back in prison within two years.

It begs the question whether similar programs may be worth exploring in other correctional facilities.

"We did the same for the prisoners as what we did for the birds," Bergervoet said.

"We let injured birds into the wild again and we were releasing these guys back out into the world again."

 

 

 

 

 

Originally published as Why murderers make better prisoners than rapists



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