A suburban dad’s poor decisions lead him to jail. How does his incredulous wife – and mother to his two children – adjust to the stiff sentence?
At parties, everyone wants to talk to Patrick Jacob. They've seen The Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black. They want to know: what's it really like inside? What really happens when a middle-class family man, a businessman, a regular donor to the blood-bank, a former army reservist and soup-kitchen operator, a man who barely drinks and cannot bring himself to say "fuck" but instead, and only when absolutely necessary, says "effing", ends up in jail?
Mel Jacob has written a book about her husband, Patrick Jacob' s time in prison. They both talk about how hard it was to maintain their relationship during this time.
Patrick Jacob's wife, Mel, has become resigned to the rapt audiences her husband draws. She has her own story: for years she'd been plotting out a book. It was going to be about a mothers' group. And then her husband was sent to jail.
"My mother told me that I staggered out of the courtroom, pulling at my clothes and howling," Mel Jacob says in the book she ended up writing, In Sickness, In Health … and In Jail. It was Tuesday, January 29, 2013. Patrick John Jacob, 37, her sweetheart and the father of her two small children, had vanished into the depths of western Sydney's Penrith Court House. A judge had just revoked his bail and announced he would serve time in custody for offences relating to prohibited weapons.
I'm sitting with Patrick and Mel at the dining room table of their home in the lower Blue Mountains. Patrick, a baby-faced 41-year-old with gelled hair and a ribbed black sweater with a zipper up the front, is remembering the three days in which he found himself in a hellish twilight zone – on remand in the Sydney Police Centre's underground holding cells in inner-city Surry Hills while a judge of the NSW District Court deliberated over the length of his sentence.
Mel is remembering that it was two days before she discovered where he was being held. When he finally was able to call, he told her he was good. "Don't you worry about me," he said. The children, Nick and Lexie*, then 7 and 4, crowded to the phone. "Are there bars in your room?" Nick asked. "Can everyone see you go to the toilet?"
On Friday, February 1, Patrick returned to court for sentencing. It was immediately clear to his wife that he was not good. There was ample reason for her to be worried about him. He was shaking. She could see he had soiled his trousers. The judge asked Patrick to stand. He delivered the sentence: a total term of four-and-a-half years, with a non-parole period of two-and-a-half years.
Mel Jacob's book, released this month, tells the story of her struggle to cope and to care for her grieving children in her husband's absence, and her constant worry for him. "I'd fallen head over heels in love with his gentleness," she writes. "It had served him well in the regular world but I couldn't begin to imagine how he would survive in prison. I feared that he wouldn't be able to look after himself or that something would happen to him [but] I also feared ... I wouldn't be able to keep the [family] business going and look after the kids."
She is petite and pretty and speaks firmly and carefully in a tone that might have been polished on Sydney's North Shore. Her wedding ring is an aquamarine set in rose gold. She is wearing drop pearl earrings and a cardigan that was her grandmother's – black with red and green embroidered flower detail. She has laid out a platter of cheese and smoked salmon and made strong cups of tea. Mel Jacob, 43, seems the sort of woman who, in all situations, would be disciplined, composed.
But with Patrick's sentence, the world she'd carefully constructed was teetering. "It felt like my life had fallen off its axis, and was spinning wildly, violently, out of control," she writes in the book.
Until she was 11, she had lived in public housing in Muswellbrook, in the upper NSW Hunter Valley. When her parents eventually bought a house, it was on the wrong side of the tracks; locals called the area "the Bronx" and schoolmates tormented her about her street address. Determined to move away from that environment of poverty and petty crime, Mel made careful, considered decisions about each step of her life and would become the first member of her family to go to university (she studied theatre and English and then did a diploma of education at the University of NSW). "I had tried to cultivate an air of sophistication," she writes in the book.
In 1996, when she was 23, she met Patrick at a picnic in Sydney's Centennial Park organised by mutual friends. The serious young woman embarked on a journey of self-discovery. "With him I was lighter, sunnier, more effervescent than I was on my own," she says.
Our little family of three had adapted and, ever so slowly, his starring role in our lives diminished.
"Paddy" was unpretentious, a cornflakes-with-three-spoonfuls-of-sugar-for-breakfast sort of bloke who laughed easily. Nevertheless, he was, and is, somewhat of a conundrum. He is the son of a lawyer, but his language is unpolished and he's not much into books.
After his parents' separation when he was about to start high school, Patrick's mother pulled her five daughters and two sons out of their Penrith Catholic community and joined a Pentecostal church. Meanwhile, during visits to farms owned by the parents of mates he met at the local Christian school, he was developing an enthusiasm for hunting, rifles and slingshots.
A friend has dropped Nick and Lexie home from the local Steiner school. They clatter into the dining room. Nick, now 10, will soon be a handsome young man. Lexie, 8, is wearing red-ribboned pigtails and a glorious Little Red Riding Hood-ish coat with buttons down the front. I tell her how much I like it. "If I got, like, one cent every time someone said that about the coat, I would be the richest person in the whole world," she declares, diving for a biscuit.
Mel Jacob's book is about love, loss, grief, forgiveness – and truth. From the start, Nick and Lexie were given the facts about their father's situation. "I think ultimately it has helped them," Mel says. They know now that everyone makes mistakes, they see that if they make a mistake, it's best to tell the truth, they understand consequences. They have learnt that humour can be found in dark places. Nick likes to explain what he was doing on the day the police arrived at the door. "I was the one who answered it," he says. "I was watching SpongeBob."
After the children's first visit to their father at western Sydney's Silverwater Correctional Complex, Lexie had a plan. "We should break him out," she told her mother as she was tucked into bed that night. While her father ate dire prison fare, back at the family dinner table, Lexie would put her fork up in front of her face and say to her brother, "You're behind bars."
During Patrick's incarceration, Mel fretted for her son who, at times was a "distant and angry child". But now, with endearing precocity, he jokes about "therapists". "I've had a lot of issues in my life with my parents." He knows about therapists, he says, because of "all the TV shows".
Along the way, the children have asked some tricky questions. The family lives near another prison and, one day soon after Patrick was jailed, Mel drove past it with the children in the back seat. "Is Dad a bad person?" Nick asked.
When Mel replied, "No, of course not," he reminded her that she'd once told them that the jail they were driving past was where bad people were sent. "They started to see that life is complicated," says Mel. "They have got an education they wouldn't otherwise have got."
Now she sends the children off to their rooms for some rationed screen time. Telling the truth does not mean they need to know every detail of their father's ordeal.
After Patrick was sentenced on charges of possessing and selling prohibited weapons – a crossbow, slingshot and an unlicensed rifle – he collapsed. "I was crying hysterically, shaking," he says, and his uneasy exhalation of a laugh suggests the terror he felt remains close. For days after the sentence, he was violently physically ill.
Through Patrick's letters home and Mel's own observations during her prison visits (to Silverwater, Mannus Correctional Centre, south-east of Wagga Wagga, and finally, Parklea in north-western Sydney), her book offers a rare insight into a fearful other-world.
In his first letter to his wife, Patrick described the experience of being kept in the Surry Hills holding cells. "Like Hunger Games in hygiene survival," he wrote. "Faeces and blood on every surface. No soap, small square toilet paper that doesn't absorb anything. Stood all day so clothes wouldn't get contaminated." The riff from other inmates was that "five days at Surry Hills is like two months of jail time anywhere else".
There was more horror to be had on the "milk run" – the transportation of prisoners between holding cells, courthouses, police stations and jails. Patrick winces as he recalls the trips during which inmates thickened the air with their cigarette smoke. "They pull the cigarettes out of their backsides – it's called the 'jail purse'. They've got waste product on their fingers and they go, 'What'd you do?', shake my hand, you know."
For the first few months of his life behind bars, Patrick was deeply depressed and slept for 12 or more hours a day. Still, it was impossible not to be intrigued by the people around him and at every chance he would ask other inmates about their lives. "They were just as fascinated with me," he says. One day, one asked him: "You've seriously never been in a police chase? Not even once in your life?"
As for the question that demands to be asked: he was not sexually assaulted. "You watch too many movies," inmates told him when he found the courage to make inquiries about the risk of assault. He learnt that, at least at the prisons he was in, the culture was macho and homophobia was ingrained. "There's more likely a chance of getting assaulted if you make a pass at someone."
He discovered that he would be largely protected from other physical violence simply because he wasn't a drug user. "If you don't do drugs, then your chances of getting hurt go radically down, 'cause you don't owe people money, then if you don't smoke as well ... that helps you even further – you're not borrowing."
Drug busts and drug-related bashings were happening around him, but he determined that the less he knew, the better. "People didn't tell me things that I didn't need to know and I told them not to tell me things I didn't need to know because I didn't want to be accused of knowing."
The closest he came to a visit to the prison doctor was the day in Mannus when three burly prisoners held him up against a wall. "The fist was actually in a cocked position," he remembers. Using what was then "jail currency" – pouches of tobacco – Patrick had bought a CD player from them. The men had used the tobacco to buy drugs. "So they come back to me [after consuming the drugs] and they're like, 'We've got no tobacco, we've got no drugs and we've got no CD player, can we borrow the CD player back?' " Patrick was saved from the situation by members of an Asian gang with whom he shared a "pod" (a house – Mannus is a minimum-security prison).
In prison, Patrick was a squeaky-clean weirdo. But the crimes that put him there were no less bizarre. When he met Mel, Patrick was working for Apple in a video-editing production role. But his interest in weaponry had continued to grow and he wanted to move out of the inner city, where they were based. In 2006, after they had been married for eight years, he took an administrative role at the RAAF base at Glenbrook in the lower Blue Mountains.
In his spare time in the years that followed, he started to sell things online – secondhand Apple computers he had restored, kids' kites and, eventually, camping, hunting and archery equipment. By 2010, he had opened Combat Australia, a retail outlet with a strong online business.
Late in 2010, a new customer, a man called Alex, who said he was from Adelaide, started to spend money with Combat. One day, Alex asked Patrick if he could get him a crossbow, a powerful mechanised bow that is legal in most states, including South Australia, but illegal in NSW unless it remains unassembled. Patrick had interstate clients to whom he occasionally sold crossbow arrows, "So I thought, 'You know what, I'll bring in four crossbows.' "
He thought he might "muck around with them", do some target shooting on friends' farms interstate. "If I store them in NSW I'm sure no one's going to be fussed," he said to himself.
Meanwhile, Alex was hassling him. Please, he asked Patrick, can you assemble my crossbow? "We're friends now, you know me, I'll have problems doing it."
Alex was an undercover police officer. In early 2011, police raids on the Jacobs' home and business also uncovered a slingshot (which are illegal in NSW but can be used in some states) and an unlicensed rifle: Patrick says he was "just slack" in getting around to registering it.
He struggles to explain his poor decisions. "I can't say I didn't know, I can't say I was untrained, I can't say I had a bad upbringing or that I was on drugs at the time, or drunk, or had a gambling problem, or needed the money." The lack of mitigating factors may explain the length of the sentence, which left the couple and their lawyers reeling – there had been some expectation that he would not receive a custodial sentence at all.
At times in the months that followed, Mel wondered if their marriage would survive. To visit him at Mannus, where he served most of his sentence, was a draining 12-hour round trip. The conversation between wife and green-tracksuited husband was often stilted. The children complained of being bored. "I could see that we had begun to move in different orbits," she writes in the book. "Our little family of three had adapted and, ever so slowly, his starring role in our lives diminished."
After his sentence was reduced on appeal, Patrick was released from jail on January 28, 2015 after serving just under two years' jail time. He will never be free of the criminal conviction that he earned, nor the shame of the experience. He is unlikely to forget that he was inside for his wife's 40th birthday and the only present he could offer was an origami vase with origami flowers, which sits now on the dining table in front of us. They were made by another prisoner, a murderer. The card was sabotaged; another inmate drew a penis on it.
"It's going to take a really long time for him to heal," says Mel. He was traumatised when he came out, she says, an angry stranger who opened drawers and cupboards to see what was in them and would ask for permission before getting something from the fridge.
Prison vignettes still flicker into Patrick's mind every day. He tried to read his wife's book but had to stop. It stressed him too much."Muuuum, it's the police!" is the book's first line. "It brings back everything like it's happening to me right now," he says.
* The children's names have been changed.
In Sickness, In Health … and In Jail, by Mel Jacob (Allen and Unwin, $30) is released on August 24.
- This story first appeared on The Canberra Times