Why Carl Williams’ murder was a ‘wake-up call’
The air was strung tight with tension, even breathing felt strained. More than 100 eye balls watched, as he moved across the floor.
His shirt was freshly ironed, his uniform navy blazer square on his shoulders.
The Commissioner for Corrections looked every part the calm, considered voice of authority.
And yet, Bob Hastings knew he was about to be savaged. He was no stranger to fronting the media.
In his 40-year career in policing, rising through the ranks to Assistant Commissioner, he'd stood in the bright lights plenty of times.
But this was a day like no other. The day before, Victoria's highest profile prisoner, Carl Williams, had been murdered in maximum security, Barwon Prison.
The whole thing had been caught on CCTV.
Now, the nation wanted answers.
"It was a packed house," Hastings, 69, told On Guard, recalling the charged energy of the press conference.
"There must have been 50 or 60 people in there, television people, radio people, newspaper people, they were all there."
He looked out over the tangle of TV cameras, booms, voice recorders, pens poised over notebooks, and took a deep breath.
He began to speak. No one moved.
"I thought I would give a preamble on what I thought might be helpful, in terms of what had occurred, or what we were doing as a consequence of it all," he said.
"And bearing in mind, I couldn't say a lot because there were investigations ongoing and issues around sub judice. And at that stage, we didn't know a lot anyway to be quite honest, it was still unravelling.
"So the preamble lasted for about five minutes and everyone was sitting there at the end of it. And a journalist, I think he was from Channel 10 News said, 'Well, thanks for your history lesson, Commissioner. But have you sacked anyone yet?'"
"That was the opening question. And it just went on like that," Hastings recalled.
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Over the next years, the Williams' murder would become one of the most investigated prison deaths in Australian history.
There were endless newspaper articles, TV shows, an internal review, an inquiry by the Victorian Ombudsman and of course a lengthy police investigation.
It was established Williams' cellmate Matthew Johnson had bashed him to death with the
stem of an exercise bike. And while Johnson received a 32-year sentence for the crime, questions still surround whether he was acting for others on the outside, and exactly who was involved.
More than a decade later, Williams' wife Roberta is still calling for answers, demanding corrections staff be held accountable.
What no one seems to be able to swallow is how Williams could have been killed in a
maximum security unit, supposedly monitored by a staff-member on CCTV?
Moreover, that 27 minutes passed - while Williams lay dying in his cell - before staff discovered his body.
The ombudsman also questioned corrective services' intelligence and why they were not aware Johnson posed a threat.
"It was a wake-up call for the corrections system about how we manage these people," Hastings said.
"You go into any prison: the general manager and supervisors might get 90 or more requests a day for people who can no longer reside with this person, or that person. And yet yesterday they were OK.
"So you're constantly managing these allegiances and alliances to keep people safe and make sure the system is secure."
At the time of Williams' murder, it was well known he was a police informant.
Johnson, on the other hand, was ringleader of a prison gang called 'Prisoners of War', who took a particular dislike to 'snitches'.
Despite this, Hastings claims intelligence didn't pick up any red flags.
"We had advice they got on quite well together, before Carl Williams was killed," Hastings said.
"There was some stuff going on around Carl, but (we thought) it was not much of an issue at that time. We had to keep an eye on it, but we thought we had.
"We had those people together for quite a long time. It wasn't as if he had just recently been put there - and there was never an issue.
"So it sort of seemed fine. There wasn't anything that was sticking out that rang alarm bells," Hastings said.
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Police have also investigated whether Williams' murder was ordered, and paid for, by a syndicate - with members transferring money into the accounts of associates of Johnson.
Former deputy police commissioner Sir Ken Jones also publicly pointed the finger at corrections, claiming compromised prison staff must have been involved in the murder.
The shadow of Carl Williams' murder hung over Bob Hastings three-year-stint as commissioner, occurring six months into his tenure.
He resigned just weeks after the Victorian Ombudsman released a report finding the state's prison system had failed to protect Williams.
However, he denies his departure was related.
"It was really unacceptable that it occurred. And it certainly shook us quite a lot," Hastings said.
"We were operating within the technology that we had at the time. We were operating within our current approaches at the time. Things are always changing. And that's what happens in corrections."
Originally published as Why Carl Williams' murder was a 'wake-up call'