Bringing comfort into the 'Hole' for 13 years

DENNIS McMillin has emerged for the last time from the "Hole" after more than 13 years descending daily to work in one of Victoria's most stressful environments.

DENNIS McMillin has emerged for the last time from the "Hole" after more than 13 years descending daily to work in one of Victoria's most stressful environments.

The Salvation Army major could not bring fresh air to those below nor blue skies for their eyes as the Melbourne Custody Centre has neither let alone freedom.

It was buried at the Melbourne Magistrates Court complex during its construction and has operated as a transit remand underworld for men and women since 1995. The CC can be a sobering four-hour stopover for the arrested drunk, a springboard for bail applicants, a temporary cell for accused and the most loathed of custodial facilities.

Major McMillin has religiously offered comfort and advice for the many thousands of prisoners who arrive there often in crisis and has facilitated material goodness like clean clothes, messages to and from loved ones and a train ticket on release with a Centrelink crisis payment.

Now 65, he has left after almost 25 years of service, more than half based at the court, to join his wife and colleague Thelma in retirement.

Run since 2010 by GS4, its second private manager, the CC is also known as the Yellow Submarine or the Dungeon. Asked what the inmates call it, Major McMillin says it is "something like a hole with another word before it".

"They know it's underground with no access to sunlight or sky and that's the vital role that we can play," he says. "We can alleviate some of the problems a prisoner faces."

His uniformed presence and respect have built layers of trust, while equally pressured and stressed staff at the 24/7 workplace have also benefited from his many kindnesses.

Ten years ago, Major McMillin and defence lawyer now magistrate Stephen Myall joined as police and court staff which today number almost 20 organisations from Centrelink to health professionals, management and Legal Aid who meet monthly in the CC as the Victorian Custody Reference Group to solve problems. Amid the tension and noise on early weekday mornings when the prison vans arrive, Major McMillin has been there.

"Often a prisoner will ask me to pray for them," he says. Major McMillin will also just sit and listen and give practical advice, for the young and old, the destitute or dangerous.

"Sometimes you are talking to a guy at the cell door and all you can see if a little bit of face through the hatch," he says, "and you promise to return later, or someone's crying.

"There have been some nights when I think to myself, 'I don't know what else we can do for that guy', but by the morning we've found a phone number so family or a friend can be located."

Overcrowding in the state's custodial facilities is hell for everyone, and Major McMillin knows no one "likes to see a prisoner go to another police cell instead of the Metropolitan Remand Centre" which facilitates placements.

When the CC fills it can quake, but he praises GS4 staff for their patience and professionalism with prisoners.

His passion for the Brisbane Lions he has three Lions tattoos for their hat-trick flags reveals one unholy blemish when he skipped an army meeting to watch a final.

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