Hard time ... Ron Woodham faces the press after an escape from Long Bay jail in 1996.
Photo: Sam Rutherford
RON WOODHAM has never shied away from a fight and, despite his age and his failing health, he showed in his stoush with Bassam Hamzy this week he is not about to change.
Hamzy, a convicted murderer, is suing Woodham for putting him in isolation in Lithgow Jail for allegedly planning an escape attempt from Goulburn Jail. So when police and prison staff suspected Hamzy was using a mobile phone allegedly to run a multi-million dollar drug ring from his cell in Lithgow, the Commissioner of NSW Corrective Services could not resist the chance to swipe back.
"I've got a message for this particular individual," he said after his staff released video footage of a mobile phone apparently being slipped into a cell. "If he thinks he has been isolated before and complained about it, wait till he sees what he's got tomorrow."
It is vintage Woodham. For decades he has been attacked by all sides of politics, criticised by staff and by those attempting reform in prisons. He has been investigated repeatedly by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and always cleared. Yet his grip on the top job in the country's biggest prison system has rarely looked more secure.
For decades he has worn the name of "rotten", but it is his mud-repelling Teflon skin that better characterises his reign. The only NSW prison officer ever to make it to the top job, Woodham joined Corrective Services in 1965 and in the 43 years since he has honed skills acquired in an environment where survival is prized above all.
No other public servant has successfully weathered such a steady stream of allegations over such a long period. The fact Woodham is still there is because he knows running jails is different from running trains or hospitals where clients complain when services fall short. His clients seldom complain and, if they do, he knows how to fight back.
He builds networks that have helped ensure his survival.
As he told John Hatzistergos at a farewell dinner he threw in 2005 when the prisons minister ended his first stint in the portfolio: "My job was to protect your back."
Hatzistergos had an almost identical recollection of how their relationship works. "I do recall the first day Ron Woodham came into my office. He said to me, 'My job is to see that at the end of your term you are bruised, not battered'."
Unlike many of his limping cabinet colleagues, Hatzistergos finished his stint as minister for jails with barely a mark on him, a marked contrast to the pounding predecessors have suffered over the years when riots and bashings and escapes dominated headlines.
He is 20 months into his second stint in the portfolio, and it is proving to be even more of a walk in the park, with barely an issue he has been compelled to address.
Hatzistergos knows the quiet life he enjoys is thanks to the all-powerful man at the top.
"Anyone can run Corrective Services when Ron Woodham is in charge," he said.