Fact is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes, and the film Healing about the relationship between a prisoner and an eagle under his care certainly mirrors a program once tried at Risdon Prison.
The film, which aired on the ABC in late last month after general release in cinemas earlier in the year, has brought back fond memories for Nick Mooney of the groundbreaking Tasmanian rehabilitation program he supervised to link the lives of convicts to injured birds of prey.
The program was designed to rehabilitate both eagles and prisoners and met with much success before its closure with the rebuilding of the prison.
Mooney said that before the Risdon program there had been many efforts to rehabilitate people in correction facilities using animals. Some had been very successful and involved prisoners taming wild horses, training seeing-eye dogs and caring for all manner of pets. The aim of such programs is to use relationships with animals as a conduit to communication, where convicts have difficulty in dealing with other people.
In the late 1980s, Lianne Barden, then a programs officer at Risdon Prison and involved in raptor study away from prison, occasionally took her dog to the jail and she noted some very difficult to deal with prisoners were much more positive when the dog was present.
Knowing the limited nature of the state raptor rehabilitation facilities at the time, Ms Barden put to both the Parks and Wildlife Service and senior prison management a proposal for rehabilitation of both people and birds at the prison. Approval was gained and an immediate start made on erecting demountable aviaries inside the women’s prison.
This proved very successful with one prisoner showing a talent for handling raptors, even enrolling in a diploma of land management course. To continue the two-way rehabilitation process, Mooney, a wildlife officer with the Parks and Wildlife department at the time, became registered as a temporary custodian so some trusted prisoners could come out on work experience.
To extend the program and include men under medium security, the first aviary that had been erected in the women’s prison was lifted over the wall, into the general prison grounds.
Ms Barden secured substantial sponsorship for materials and a huge expanded aviary of wooden-slats on power poles and steel girders was built by prisoners.
Mooney says that on one occasion, while visiting to check on progress, nothing had happened because the lead carpenter, an habitual criminal, had been released.
“Don’t worry”, Mooney was assured, “he’ll be back soon” and sure enough work restarted in a couple of weeks.
The program became the lynchpin of Tasmanian raptor rehabilitation. The huge aviary was opened by the relevant minister and prison management and even key inmates gave press interviews.
After the female prisoner with a talent for raptor care left, it was mainly the men who looked after the birds, including several of the prison fire crew, at that time actively helping with local fire-fighting.
In the general grounds without security fencing, Mooney was able to access the cage and freezer to feed birds in the case of a lockdown, but so could others. On one occasion someone knocked in a number of slats with an axe, letting out the injured eagles. Amazingly, the prisoners under supervision managed to catch them all and repair the aviary before Mooney even heard about it and they attached signs saying, “the eagles are crippled so please don’t release them to starve”.
The program came to a sudden end with the rebuilding of the prison in the late 2000s, but, with a stroke of luck at the same time, Craig Webb was establishing a rehabilitation centre of his own on his property in Kettering and he took the birds. This was to become the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge of Tasmania.
Mooney says that many of the prisoners involved in the raptor program became skilled and dedicated in wildlife care and several remained active in raptor rehabilitation after they were released.