THIRTY-two years ago Deacon Russ Nelson answered a notice in his parish bulletin searching for drivers to take visitors to prison once a month.
“I said ‘yes’ and I’ve kept on doing it,” Deacon Nelson, the longest-serving driver still working for the charity Prison Transport Group, said.
More than just a bus service, PTG is celebrating 40 years offering service to the family of prisoners, keeping them in contact with their loved ones behind bars in 10 prisons in south-east Queensland and Rockhampton.
From humble beginnings during harsh times, when Sr Ursula O’Loughlin co-ordinated volunteer drivers using their own cars to pick up and deliver, PTG now has a fleet of buses and transports more than 8500 passengers every year, including children.
“It’s a simple way to fulfil the mission of Christ,” Deacon Nelson said.
“Keeping the link between the prisoner and the family is so important. Otherwise … if a prisoner doesn’t have hope … they lose all sense of their humanity and membership of the family of God.”
Deacon Nelson said families of prisoners were often poor and PTG offered practical, missionary service; his passengers include mums struggling to reach the prison gates with young kids in prams and strollers, or family members renewing contact after a long and painful break.
“You meet grandfathers who see their nineteen-year-old grandson for the first time in ten years and see them in jail,” he said.
“Now that’s a tragedy, but at least the restoration of that link between the grandson in jail and the grandfather can start to begin.”
Deacon Nelson said the formation of PTG in the 1980s was “a social justice response to the then brutal and unbending conditions” as family members faced many challenges visiting prisoners.
“Visitations were under very difficult conditions and were frowned upon as a disruption and an intrusion into prison life,” he said.
“One of the key features of life in jail from a prison officer’s point of view is order. Visits were seen as a risk to the preservation of order.
“Only the most stalwart or staunch people kept coming to face the direct coldness and displeasure meted out to them.”
Conditions improved when the notorious Boggo Road jail (No. 2 Division) closed in 1989.
The jail’s No. 1 Division was closed in 1992 and was demolished in 1996.
“I went to the closure of this jail and I recall the open grilles, the grit and a lack of cleanliness. I imagine the inmates were grateful if the roof did not leak, ” Deacon Nelson said.
“The Kennedy Report of 1989, commissioned by the Queensland Government, triggered the introduction of radical changes in the prison system, under the newly formed Queensland Corrective Services Commission, against great odds from media and public alike.”
Deacon Nelson has observed a “more sophisticated” government approach to prison services during the past 20 years – one that encourages prisoners to change and contribute to society.
PTG now provides 18 transport services per week every week of the year, to four centres at Wacol, Borallon, Southern Queensland, Woodford, Palen Creek, Numinbah and Rockhampton.
Contact with PTG can be made at www.prisontransport.com.au.