With a distant smile, Tim remembers his mother visiting him in prison.
"She said it's the first jail I've been in where she didn't cry when she left," the young inmate said.
Standing in the visitors' area at maximum security Macquarie Correctional Centre, Tim faces a towering mural of the Incredible Hulk angrily smashing through a brick wall.
Indigenous inmates' dot paintings and bright sunflower artworks line the walls of the Grills and Gates cafe, where prisoners serve up coffee and hot food.
A sign behind them says: "Life happens. Coffee helps."
Here, reunited families can sit under the vast country sky, the anti-climb prison fence momentarily out of view.
The 400-bed men's jail on the outskirts of Wellington, in NSW's Central West, was opened in 2017 to address prison overcrowding across the state.
The first rapid-build jail in Australia, Macquarie is an innovative centre where men convicted of serious crimes are encouraged to develop their social conscience.
The inmates, who live in 25-bed dorms rather than cells, are given a level of trust and can choose their own paths to change, through teaching and learning art, music, language and woodwork.
The jail's head gardener, a murderer serving life, cares for lush beds of geraniums, sweet Alice and zinnias lining the walkways.
A bulky, heavily-tattooed former organised crime figure runs Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Some inmates have competed in online international chess and public speaking competitions.
With the privileges come expectation. Violence is not tolerated and men who fight are moved on.
The jail's acting governor Philip Lindley says the programs are designed to reduce re-offending. He's watched inmates turn their lives around.
"The majority of these guys are going to get out one day," he says.
"Wouldn't you rather them move next door to you knowing we've done everything to make them a better person?
"If you're going to treat people like animals, that's what you're going to get in the end."
The inmates have structured 15-hour days, dividing time between paid work in the jail's industries, exercise, education and rehabilitation.
Tim and an older inmate, Robert, both of whom have been given pseudonyms to protect victims, found their passion for art and now teach other prisoners.
Under their guidance, one inmate is painting a grey and white self-portrait, an intense stare radiating off the canvas. He will send it to his mother to hang in her lounge room.
Another, a Fijian, is applying thick yellow paint to a mural depicting the legend of Maui chasing the sun.
"Painting really opens the mind. Time just disappears for me," he says.
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Tim and Robert's absurdist and mythical works are all around the jail, referencing literature, ancient maps and historic figures like Albert Einstein.
Robert, who has been in prison more than two decades, painted a dark scene showing downcast men on a conveyer belt, who are churned up and put in jars labelled "pickled inmate".
"If you keep someone in too long and treat them badly, you end up with a crazy person. By "pickled", I mean crazy," Robert says, in his broad, gravelly tone.
"Then you have to release them instead of repairing them."
He has spent time in other maximum security centres across the state, where he often lived in a one-man cell.
"That's jail. We all stuffed up and we deserve to be here," he says.
"But long term, it's not good for generating people who are going to be any sort of use in society.
"This place has opened it all right up."
Across from a yard where inmates work out and chatter, Tim has painted an intricate scene from the epic poem Beowulf. It's about battling monsters, both real and imagined, he says.
"It takes you out of where you are," he says.
"You don't feel like we're enclosed or trapped."
The atmosphere calms in the prayer room, called the Chapel of Faith, Hope and Redemption, where the men's stirring religious artworks hang.
Robert and Tim were tutored by Sydney artist Kim Spooner, a Dobell Drawing Prize finalist, known for her evocative portraits and still lifes.
During their early morning weekly sessions, held online during the height of COVID-19, Spooner spoke to them about technique, art history and their hopes of setting up a studio upon their release.
Spooner says the jail's program is not just an education in painting but in life skills like resilience and problem solving.
"The idea is that when you come out of jail, you've paid the debt and you can start afresh," she says.
"But it would seem prisoners continue to pay their debt long after they've left jail unless they've got something they recognise as worth in themselves.
"Ultimately it's about the worth of the individual.
"(Robert and Tim) have overcome a lot of personal demons."
The jail also engages inmates by building a strong sense of community.
Staff sell inmates eggs - a rarity in jail - for double the price, with the extra money stored in a fund for shared equipment like gym machines or a running track.
Inmates can choose to add money to the price of a new pair of sneakers to donate to charity. The men recently competed in a jail yard marathon for breast cancer and have funded a new trailer for the local State Emergency Service.
Mark Halsey, a professor of criminology at Flinders University, conducted a survey of inmates and staff, along with colleagues from University of Melbourne, to understand which of the initiatives are effective.
The inmates say they have the best chance of staying out of jail if they have supporters on the outside, something the centre fosters through regular video calls to family.
"Having some role while in custody, like a meaningful parental role, is absolutely critical to developing change in people and self-belief and purpose," Professor Halsey says.
Matt, not his real name, a menacing-looking man with muscles bulging through his prison greens, teeters on a metal stool in his dorm, a book of sketches by his tattooed hands.
He is the inmate who runs the drug recovery meetings, which he says are stopping any temptation to return to crime.
The thought of being with his children is also keeping him on the straight and narrow.
"They were kids when I come in and they'll be adults when I get out," he says.
"Unfortunately, that's the life I chose and you have to deal with the consequences.
"Having the ability here to interact with my kids and stay focused is massive."
Nearby, Robert and Tim stand next to two plastic tubs.
Their lives are being packed away as they prepare to move to lower security jails for the remaining years of their sentences.
They are grateful for their time at Macquarie.
"It's still prison," Tim says.
Robert chimes in: "But it's the best of the worst."
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