Kerry Corbin left his job as a truck driver to become a prison officer in 2008. He spent seven years with Queensland Corrective Services, mostly surrounded by sex offenders and paedophiles at Wolston Correctional Centre, Brisbane. After a violent inmate assault, he retired on medical grounds and says he has never been the same since.
Kerry Corbin inched his way towards the cell.
He wanted to clock this bloke with his own eyes, to see the monster in the flesh.
Like most of Australia, he’d anxiously followed the case of missing schoolboy Daniel Morcombe since the 13-year-old vanished from beneath a Sunshine Coast overpass in 2003.
Now, more than a decade later, serial paedophile Brett Peter Cowan had been convicted of his murder and was finally behind bars at Wolston Correctional Centre, in Wacol, Brisbane.
Just a single steel door separated corrections officer Corbin and the man at the centre of one of the biggest police investigations in Australian history.
Here was the predator who lured Daniel into his car on promises of a lift to Sunshine Plaza, where Daniel planned to buy Christmas presents.
Instead, Cowan took him to an abandoned house to molest him.
When the young teen tried to defend himself, Cowan strangled him, dumping his naked body in nearby bush.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a zoo and you’ve got like a very dangerous sort of animal that’s sort of been hidden away. And you sort of drawn yourself slowly to the door to actually see this deadly animal. That’s exactly what it felt like … to just to draw myself in and picture the monster,” Corbin, 51, tells On Guard.
When Corbin finally peered through the plastic window, the site of Cowan’s underwhelming frame and dishevelled hair fell far short of his reviled public reputation.
This wasn’t a criminal mastermind, just a shabby looking “rock spider”.
“He had a secure cell. It basically had that the hatch where you put the food through and we can handcuff them through. But it’s a perspex window that you could look through.
“He was pretty shabby. I’m not too sure if he was in a suicide gown or anything like that at the time. But yeah, he was pretty much high profile, ‘on the watch’, just in case,” Corbin said.
‘On the watch’ is the prison term for when an inmate is considered high risk, and an officer is assigned to do regular checks, or in extreme cases, observe them continuously from a chair outside their cell.
Even in a “protection prison” like Wolston – specifically designed to house prisoners unable to be placed in a mainstream jail without being murdered or maimed by other inmates – Cowan was a target and had to be kept in his own cell.
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“He had his own TV and a bookshelf where he would have put his clothes and his towel. He would have had his bed and a covered in area where he could have a shower. And that’s practically about it … toilet, sink,” Corbin said.
Paedophiles and child killers sit at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, and the more high profile, the more the crooks want them dead.
If the years of national media coverage wasn’t enough, several of the Wolston prisoners had been personally impacted by Cowan’s crime – having been called up as “persons of interest” by police and the coronial inquiry into Daniel’s death.
Indeed Cowan has been assaulted on numerous occasions, including having boiling water poured over him by a prisoner in 2016, who described it as a “vigilante act on behalf of Daniel Morcombe”, and stabbed in the neck and ear in another incident in 2018.
“Just because you’re in a protection prison doesn’t mean that you are safe,” Corbin said.
“Like most of Australia, I just wanted five minutes alone with him.”
For protection prison officers like Corbin, each shift meant getting uncomfortably close to society’s most heinous offenders, “the baby killers, the ones that have done pornography with their kids, the ones with real mental health problems, the ones that the other side of the jail want to kill”.
Mixing in such depraved company has given Corbin a “sixth sense” for paedophiles that he believes enables him to identify a sex offender in minutes.
“You find with paedophiles they’ve got a really warped sense of humour. They’ll tell jokes that normal people wouldn’t laugh at but they find funny, and normal jokes they don’t really get.
“They would come up and tell you jokes, but their sense of humour, it’s not normal,” he said. “If I see it, I can pick up on it and I know straight away, and I guarantee that 99 per cent of officers and ex-officers will be able to pick it up as well.”
The only upside on managing sexual deviates, is that they’re usually the most compliant inmates.
One example was child sex offender Franky Houdini, a well-known magician and children’s entertainer who became a household name in the 1990s for his escapologist stunts, including jumping off the Indooroopilly Bridge into the Brisbane River in 2001 while handcuffed, chained and shackled.
In 2010, Houdini was convicted of numerous sex offences against minors, including having sex with a six-year-old while dressed in his magician’s attire, making a pornographic film with a teenage girl and possessing child exploitation material.
Yet the serial predator was all but docile behind prison walls.
“He was very, very softly spoken. He used to go around and hand out lollies. He’d come into the officer’s station and see if we wanted any lollies and stuff like that. He was extremely polite, extremely cordial, never ever drew any attention to himself. Just very quiet, very apologetic,” Corbin said.
Not long after Corbin retired in 2015, Houdini was found hanged behind his cell door.
Five years on, the impact of his time in corrections remains permanently imprinted on Corbin’s physical and mental health. A life-altering attack from an inmate left him unable to work and with permanent neurological damage.
But it’s the psychological torture that haunts him most.
“The thing that you’ll find with any officer is he can go out into public and he can point out the crims, he can point out the paedophiles,” he said.
“That’s why you find that most of us sort of stand with our back to the wall and we don’t like people coming up behind us.
“When I walk through a shopping mall I’m always scanning, looking for people, and when I see young girls dressed scantily, I just want to beg the parents, ‘please, do something. You have no idea what’s out there.”
Originally published as Morcombe killer still haunts me: ‘I wanted 5 mins with him’