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.
The one issue that has threatened to derail Woodham recently were allegations in a highly detailed letter saying he had corruptly promoted a young woman, Viviane Fahs, from a grade 5 position to a grade 11/12 to run his Community Compliance Group.
A Premier's Department inquiry cleared him of detailed accusations of the promotion and the $45,000 pay rise that accompanied it.
When Hatzistergos received the letter containing the allegations, he referred it to ICAC, which then asked the Government to undertake its own investigations. Three days before last Christmas the then director-general of the Premier's Department, Robyn Kruk, made public a brief statement summarising her report clearing Woodham.
"There was no evidence to support the allegations that Mr Woodham had acted inappropriately in exercising his responsibilities as Commissioner of Corrective Services," she said.
Her report went to ICAC, which then wrote back to the Premier's Department.
The Herald has sought both documents under freedom of information laws, but the department's general counsel, Leigh Sanderson, ruled there was insufficient public interest to make public Kruk's report or ICAC's response to it.
Release of either of the documents would be unreasonable, she said.
Woodham had objected to the release of the Kruk report, and his views formed part of the reason for keeping the document secret, she said.
"It is likely that damage will be suffered by Mr Woodham or other individuals as release of the report may prompt further damaging unsubstantiated gossip and unproven rumours about Mr Woodham and/or staff of the Department of Corrective Services, affecting their ability to carry out their jobs effectively and causing undue personal distress and damage to their reputations."
Other reasons for withholding the report include the fact that "the report contains details of the investigation of corruption allegations into Mr Woodham, and the investigations concluded their was no evidence to sustain the allegations" and "the fact that the report is confidential and has not been publicly released".
Hatzistergos refused to elaborate when asked whether "Woodham was cleared because he had no hand in the promotion of Ms Fahs."
The minister's only response was: "The matter was thoroughly investigated by the Department of Premier and Cabinet."
Woodham's authoritarian manner and iron grip on jails may suit politicians, but it can make him difficult to work with.
Few voice their concerns publicly - Michael Edwards is an exception. The designer of the CUBIT (Custody-Based Intensive Treatment) program to treat sexual offenders quit Corrective Services this year after a 26-year career that started as a community service organiser, developed into psychological work with prisoners, and moved into the top echelons of the organisation as a principal adviser to the commissioner. By the time he went he had fallen out of Woodham's favour.
"My storage space was cut from 31 linear metres to two. My office was taken away and I was put in a space in a corridor. … the signals were pretty clear, so in the end I gave up."
The department's great problem, Edwards says, is Woodham's great strength: his obsessive mastery of detail and enforcement of his own authority.
"If people told Woodham what he didn't want to hear, he would bellow at them and berate them … and create an atmosphere of fear and second-guessing."
The Administrative Decisions Tribunal agreed Woodham behaved in an angry and aggressive way when it cleared him in a 2002 decision of racial discrimination at a 1995 meeting.
The tribunal concluded Woodham behaved "in an angry and aggressive manner" at a meeting with Aboriginal staff. Evidence that Woodham displayed a "tremendous amount of aggression towards the people in the room" was corroborated by the other participants in the meeting, the tribunal found.
Edwards says his aggression started with the custodial officers but spread to other types of officers.
"The culture among management changed from 'What is the best plan?' to 'How do we get this past the commissioner?' Doing their best came to run second behind pleasing Woodham."
It was not always the way, Edwards says.
"Woodham was a benevolent patron at first, but then underwent a kind of … change, where his passion for certain initiatives changed into a relentless micromanagement.
"He vets personally all leave applications, all prisoner classifications. He can recite chapter and verse on everything a prisoner has done since they were a toddler. It's incredible how knowing and accurate he is. His decision on them will come down as something like, 'This one's an arsehole, and he'll be an arsehole forever'. And that's that. His power is absolute."
The legend of Ron Woodham starts when he was a little-known prison officer who approached the commissioner of the day and announced that he had independently set up an "internal investigations unit". He had gutted a factory, set up desks and phones and staff. The proposal was accepted, and from then on, Edwards says, "nobody would dare stand in his way. He collected information and collated files on people working in the department."
Former NSW independent MP Peter Breen knows Woodham from his time in Parliament and has had regular dealings with him since as part of his efforts to force an inquiry into the murder conviction of Phuong Ngo.
Woodham, he says, could hardly have been more helpful.
"Everything I asked for he always gave me. I asked if Phuong Ngo could stay in prison in Sydney during the inquiry and got a call back saying, 'No problem'.
"People respect him. Nothing happens without his authority, no one moves without his approval, he micromanages everything. He does it very efficiently. I think it's terrible … but I can't recall a time when Corrective Services have been less in the media."
Edwards agrees Woodham's success has rested on his mastery of micromanagement and politics. Famously, when Labor returned to power in NSW in 1995 after a seven-year lapse and proposed prison reform, Woodham said: "Who do they think they are? We've been here for a lot longer than them."
In Woodham's conception, he is part of an institution that has been one of the state's foundations since its first days as a penal colony.
Most skilfully, he has protected ministers from bad publicity.
"He sees himself as the thick blue line separating the Parliament from chaos," Edwards says.
"Woodham is always there to look after the minister. He stands in front of the minister and takes the flak and manages to turn everything into a triumph of security. As a result, he usually manages to get the funds he wants for new security ideas.
"He drove the idea of home detention with manacles, the Drug Court and the 2006 legislation to keep offenders in prison beyond the end of their sentence."
While determined to please his bosses, Woodham was authoritarian with those below, Edwards says. "His style was to run hot and cold with various people, picking them as favourites and then dumping them.
"Because he would decide a certain person was his favourite, no matter how far down the chain they were, the lines of command would be completely broken and the entire process would grind to a halt."
His motivations, say those who have worked with him, are not financial, although he has a salary in excess of $340,000.
"I would never say he was motivated by money, because although he's well remunerated in his position with his skills
he could make a lot more money in the private sector," Edwards says.
"You would probably say he's motivated by keeping control, down to every level.
"It's the same thing that has always motivated him."