18 March 2015

A Boggo Road Great: John Banks, 1939-2014

In 2014 we said goodbye to the late John Banks, the founding president of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society. He was a man described by his former workmates as one of the true ‘Boggo Road Greats’, not only because he was one of those screws who was respected by officers and prisoners, but he was also a champion of the Boggo Road historical site. John could come across as very much old school 'hard-but-fair’ and easily annoyed into gruffness by fuss and nonsense, but his true nature was that of a giver and humanitarian. I’d like to take the time to put something of his life, as I knew it, on the record.

John at work, 1980s. (BRGHS)

John was born in Brisbane on 3 October 1939 - a birthday he shared with the No.2 Division of Boggo Road. His schooling took him all around south Queensland until he gained a scholarship in 1954. His working career in Australia and overseas included long-distance truck and coach driving (and working as a doorman alongside the infamous John Andrew Stuart) before he became a prison officer at Boggo Road in 1972. By that time he had a wife (Gwen) and two children (Michelle and Michael).

John also worked at other prisons such as Wacol before his retirement in the 1990s, and then he started guided tours at Boggo Road with three other men. Within a few years the others had retired to leave John and a tiny handful of volunteers running the not-for-profit museum, and that’s where I met him in 2001.

As manager of the Boggo Road museum he very regularly volunteered his way through 60-hour weeks without making a cent in return. As a tour guide he took thousands of schoolchildren through the place, sometimes doing six tours a day, and the schools came back year after year, just for John. Teachers have recently been in touch with us expressing their disappointment that he wasn't there to take tours anymore. At times John carried the gaol on his back to keep it open and - by virtue of it being open and in regular use - safe from demolition.

An image that always stuck in my mind was when I called into the museum about 6am one September morning to get some work out of the way (I had my own keys). As I walked up the driveway through cold dawn drizzle, there was John slowly making his way around the prison, unlocking the dozens of doors as he did every morning, a cat following close behind. He’d usually be there for another 12 hours, 18 if there was a function that night. And this was how he lived his life at the museum.

John, 2005. (BRGHS)

The simple fact is that nobody has ever worked as hard for Boggo Road and nobody ever will again. The fact that Boggo Road is still standing is part of his legacy.

I would talk here about his ‘tireless efforts’ at the museum, but that would not be right because he was greatly tired by his efforts. It was not uncommon for him to take five or six tours through the prison in one day, in later years limping through them and taking short breaks when he could to rest his arthritic knees. He was a man in genuine pain (which was thankfully relieved in later years by knee operations). And this was his life, week in, week out, and he did it for free – the true mark of a labour of love. This was all despite John being one of the ‘faction’ who remembered the fly-by-night heritage demolitions of previous years and insisted the government was going to end up bulldozing Boggo Road anyway.

His effort was all the more remarkable because he also had to endure what was described as a ‘personal vendetta’. The museum was not-for-profit, with the surplus for each year being donated to charities such as ‘Drug Arm’, and every cent was meticulously accounted for in the records. Despite this, a businessman who leased an office at Boggo Road and had free access for tours developed some kind of a personal issue with John and lodged an endless series of petty and often hysterical complaints behind his back. John generally brushed these off, but it offended the rest of the volunteers, especially when John got a call from Centrelink because someone had told them he was making money at the museum (and therefore basically committing pension fraud). A completely false accusation, as was soon discerned.

To see a fundamentally honest pensioner freely volunteer his time to take so many tours through the prison and then be treated like this was beyond belief. What is the mentality of a person who would do that? It was, as another former officer said in prison parlance, 'a maggot act’. In Christmas 2008, after John had moved to the Sunshine Coast hinterland for a well-deserved retirement, the Boggo businessman sent him absurd legal threats and made exorbitant demands for compensation. It is a measure of the man that John was able to shrug off these attacks over the years, but he was a honest and compassionate person who gave his time freely for the common good and he deserved better.

I might just be a friend praising his work here, but then it was also highly praised in speeches in the Australian Federal Senate. Not many of us can say that.

Of course, sheer hard work alone doesn’t make you a good person. What made John stand out was the fact that he was, much like his good friend and museum colleague Don Walters, a humanitarian - despite the often gruff exterior. For example, he was once asked in a radio interview about prison officer brutality and he replied that, ‘some officers seemed to think prisoners were there for punishment. They weren’t. They were there as punishment’. This was a theme he brought to his prison tours. ‘Every prisoner who walked in the door’, he would say, ‘will one day walk out of it. And they could move next door to you. What kind of a person do you want them to be after prison? Do you want them to be better people or be brutalised?’ He had no time for former officers badmouthing prisoners on tours and if it happened he let them know it.

John was saddened by the prospects of some of the young inmates in his keep. Many had the kind of childhoods and lack of education that make prison almost inevitable, and without further help they were condemned to spend a life in and out of prison. John was the kind of officer who tried to provide that help. He took the time outside his regular duties to teach inmates to read. He taught them horticulture, using rose cuttings obtained from New Farm park keepers. He also taught the craft of leatherwork, and used the proceeds from sales of their work on Christmas presents for the particularly disadvantaged inmates with intellectual problems who probably deserved to be in a different kind of institution. Christmas Day for John and Gwen was sometimes spent inside institutions handing out these presents.

As I said, all this was done outside his regular workload. He didn’t need to do it, but he did it because he wanted to. Most of the prisoners and the officers respected him for it.

Unlike some prison officers, John made no effort to conceal his address and phone number, despite having young children at home. His philosophy was that if he did his job properly and fairly inside the prison, he would have nothing to fear outside of it. Sometimes former inmates would rock up to the museum just to say hello to ‘Mr Banks’. It is no surprise that one of his favourite movies was ‘The Green Mile’, and Tom Hanks’ characterisation of a sympathetic prison officer in that movie probably struck a chord with John. As he told me during an interview last year;
'Being a prison officer, you are not supposed to talk to prisoners, you are not to have any dealings with prisoners, but how can you work within a system and not having something to say to somebody? Now, I had no trouble with any prisoner, they were quite amiable to me, they were polite, and the feeling between me... they were prisoners, I was a prison officer, when I went home I had to forget about what they went in there for, but when I came back to work I had to remember what they were in there for and I had to make certain they didn’t escape. But if you want to be gruffy and bad-tempered and do all the stupid things... you’d have a pretty rough time in there because all you do is just keep looking at your back all the time.'
He was also a giver outside of prison, whether he was coaching baseball to kids or being the RSPCA ‘Santa Paws’ for several years (you haven’t really seen John until you’ve seen him dressed as Father Christmas greeting a long line of pets - "have you been a good budgie this year?"). No doubt there’s a lot of other generous things he did that I don’t know about, because you had to rely on other people to tell you about this stuff. For instance, one thing I only heard about from Gwen was when John took a small group of at-risk youth through Boggo Road for a tour once. The biggest boy in the group had a bit of an attitude and seemed proud that he would probably be going to prison one day. John took the time to explain to the boy that while he might be a big fish in his little youth group, he would be passed around the big fellas in prison like a sex toy. And people like John wouldn’t always be there to protect him. John knew because he had seen this happen.

Well, about six months later the youth group coordinator rang up to say ‘thank you’. That little talk had made such an impact that the boy’s attitude had completely changed and he had since started an apprenticeship. Prison was no longer an option. As I said to Gwen when she later told me this, if John had done nothing else with his life, that one thing alone would make it a life worth living.

He also had a great touch with animals (outside of pig shooting and fishing), and a wild cat that lived around Boggo Road adopted him, following him everywhere and jumping on his lap whenever the chance arose. When the museum closed in 2005, John adopted PC (Prison Cat) and PC continues to live a happy life today. John also became a bit of a Birdman of Boggo Road and loved breeding canaries and budgies. The Banks household was often a foster refuge for wounded wildlife.

John and Gwen receive honorary lifetime memberships of the BRGHS from Senator Claire Moore after his retirement in 2007. (BRGHS)

So what is John’s legacy? In terms of History, it is not only the survival of Boggo Road prison and the tens of thousands of children who learned about it from him, it is also the fact that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society exists and that hundreds of its members continue his work. John always said that seeing the museum come to life when it could just as easily have been demolished was a ‘dream come true’, and he took great satisfaction in knowing that the good work was being carried on by others, and that the prospects of Boggo Road becoming a not-for-profit site again were looking very promising. How many of us can aspire to having others remember and carry on our labour of love when we have passed away?

The BRGHS will, in time, formalise his legacy at Boggo Road.

Even more important than all that, however, is the legacy of his personal life, in having a family that love him, and people grateful for the innumerable acts of kindness that made their lives easier or better.

After a short illness, John died peacefully in his sleep in June with loving family by his side. In typical John fashion, he asked for a no-fuss private family funeral (although his first preference was to be put in a cardboard box and dumped in the garden).

His family has lost a deeply-loved husband, father and grandfather; his colleagues have lost a respected friend; and Boggo Road has lost its champion. However, the dead only die when they are forgotten, and the work and actions of John Banks counted for a lot and will clearly not be forgotten.

The following poem is often attributed (probably wrongly) to Ralph Waldo Emerson. There is a lot in it that can be said of John Banks and remind us that even after all the slings and arrows, he did succeed…
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
Rest in Peace, John. You earned it.