Lake Macquarie History

Light on Morisset: Are we safe?

photo:light on morisset. are we safe. exhibition panel

People charged with a criminal offence could be found unfit to stand trial owing to mental illness or not guilty owing to mental illness. The NSW prison system was not well-equipped to manage acute psychiatric conditions until the late 20th century. Ward 21 at Morisset Hospital housed patients found to be both mentally ill and to have committed an offence between 1936 and 1990. Ward 22 was also used for this purpose during part of this period. The term 'criminally insane' was used to describe both the facility and patients. The term comes from the Lunacy Act 1898. These wards were known as 'the Crim' for short by the Morisset community and hospital staff well after the term 'criminally insane' was removed by the Mental Health Act in 1958.
Dr Les Darcy found that schizophrenia was the most common diagnosis for patients, making up nearly 75% of those treated.
Other common diagnoses included depression, personality disorders and developmental disabilities. The most common criminal charges included murder, attempted murder and manslaughter. Many committed criminal offences while in a state of misinterpreted reality. This is known as `psychosis'. The intention of the facility was to create safety, both for patients and the community. Failures occurred, as they do in any system. There were several escapes from 'the Crim'. The most serious was in 1979. Two prisoners escaped and were at large for 14 days. They committed multiple violent offences during this time. Maximum security patients were often very unwell and in close confinement for long periods. In the 1970s the suicide rate in maximum security unit at Morisset Hospital was at least 60 times that of males in the NSW population. Both Peter Kocan and Laurie Akers recounted instances of staff mistreating patients. A senior nurse was killed by a patient in 'the Crim' in 1969. He was stabbed in the head with a pair of garden shears. Peter Kocan spent only 5 years in 'the Crim' following being charged with attempted murder. Indefinite periods of incarceration in security wards for mentally ill offenders have been recorded. The Lake Macquarie community remains fearful of and fascinated by the abandoned `Crim' today. The ruins of the facility are regularly visited and photographed.

From the time of opening the criminal ward until I left Morisset more than three years later, only one of the criminal patients attempted to escape. To a great extent they guarded each other, as after the close incarceration in the gloom of Parramatta, they feared that escape attempts by any would lead to the loss of all of their relative freedom. Many of these patients were highly intelligent.
Patients Are People Too Dr Alf Edwards 1960s

You feel a clutch of apprehension. You feel you’ve said something wrong. That you’d been caught out in a lie somehow. Then you realise that you haven’t been calling him “Sir”. That was enough to make them hit you, back at the gaol. Not calling them ‘Sir” was a Breach. You recall the time at the gaol when one of the men forgot to call the warder ‘Sir”. The warder went up and put his hands around the man’s shoulder, as if he felt very friendly and said: “My friend, you know you’ve committed a Breach, don’t you?” The man probably really didn’t know. He probably didn’t realise about the “Sir”. His mouth was trembling while he was smiling. Then the warder hit him in the face and he fell down.
The Treatment Peter Kocan 1980

One day there was some terribly grim news that one of the male nurses had been murdered, been killed by one of the one of the inmates and again my memory is hazy. I kind of got the impression that this had been a trusted one of the inmates and [he’d been] given a pair of gardens shears to go out and do some gardening. Caught the male nurse, he was quite a senior fellow well known in the Morisset community, must have caught him off guard and stabbed him in the head with the shears is my recollection. So you can imagine the sort of ramifications that had through the local community. The fellow was quite a senior male nurse, they were in the pecking order of the Morisset Hospital community. The fact that it happened to him sent shock waves right through the entire community. Very tragic day.
Oral history Rob Henderson 2021

We’ve had many instances where patients have been injured by the staff. They would knock them over and then put them in one of the little rooms. The doctor would come around and ask if there was anybody to see, and they would be told no. They would never expose the extent of the cruelty. Some of the staff were terrible, especially the men. In the days before effective sedatives the only way to control unruly patients was by brute force, but some of the very old men who were staff used to be very cruel.
Working in Morisset Hospital in the Bad old Days Laurie Akers As told by Bill Bottomley July 2020

When [the] tension level was high for any reason in the ward there would be a definite tendency for division into "them" (the patients) and “us” (the nursing staff) and a tendency for the staff to want to use punishment or the threat of it as a way of controlling the patients, just as might occur in a prison.
The Care of the Mentally Ill Offender in New South Wales Dr Les Darcy 1983

Some [patients] were very violent — suicidal and all sorts of things — and they’d put them in the single rooms which were quite small. The doors on the single rooms were quite thick and there were strips of glass in the door, and we used to have to keep a watch on them through the glass. Of course they couldn’t hurt themselves or anything in there, there were no knives or anything like that that they could use to commit suicide. There was no toilet in there…
Working in Morisset Hospital in the Bad old Days Laurie Akers As told by Bill Bottomley July 2020

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