“Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” – Tony (Ex-convicted criminal)
It is fascinating the way in which people hesitate to talk to someone who has been through our judicial system. It is as if their experiences must be biased or a straight out fabrication. This article aims to change that perception, at least for the man I had the pleasure to get to know. To protect his identity I have named him Tony. By remaining somewhat anonymous, we eliminate the need to think through responses just in case his answers could get back to him. Therefore this short interview is an honest portrayal of life after and during incarceration.
Since the late 1960’s to approximately 10 years ago, Tony has served fourteen years in some form of incarceration. His first offense was stealing milk money that people would leave on their doorsteps. Tony confessed he was a young surfer, a bit of a rebel at that and wanted some money for the day. After being caught in the act, he was sent to a state-run government ‘Boys Home’ where “systematic abuse was always going on”.
“It was a bit of a fucking rude-awakening for me”. Tony, like myself when hearing about his first convicted crime, did not expect to end up at a Boys Home. He explained how the facility ran on a point system where guards had the power to reward and take away points from inmates depending on their behavior. Although this seems like a constructive approach, it was a “vicious system” that surprisingly divided inmates from each other whilst successfully banding together guards and inmates who were “the best fighters”.
Although a juvenile facility, the Boys Home ran on divisions ranging from 1-6 to control the population. Tony remembers section 1 consisted of the strongest, quickest and best fighters while the others were mixed. To receive privileges and get ahead, members from group 1 would work with the guards.
“One day we were all out working on the field, there were no guards around so I took my chance and dropped my shovel and ran as fast as I could. One of the boys from section 1 came after me and chased me down, I was punished soon after and sent to solitary. I then knew how the game was played.”
The guards would also return the favor by organizing certain groups to be left alone whilst turning a blind eye to the violence that would ensue.
“You always knew there would be a fight when the guards called for toilet breaks and left group 1 and another group alone. Everyone knew someone was getting bashed. This was just one of the ways the guards would get their favorites to do their dirty work”.
I asked Tony whether things could have been different for him. Keeping in mind, he did re-offend and would later experience life inside some of Australia’s most notorious prisons. I posed the question, “If you had received community service, for arguments sake, rather than be sent away to the Boys Home, would things have turned out differently?’ Tony didn’t hesitate before agreeing wholeheartedly. And when we discussed the difference between adult prisons and juvenile facilities he casually responded, “the ball game doesn’t change, just the players”. In fact, many of the players had stayed the same. Stemming from his time at the boys home, entering prison was a lot easier for Tony than most others. People he shared his juvenile sentence with were now also adults who were facing tougher and longer sentences. This is where the point of this article becomes clear, the judicial system is not helping rehabilitate and reintegrate, in this case young offenders, back into society. Sending Tony to the Boys Home may have been effective, that is if the guards spent more time learning about the young man who had troubles at home and difficulty finding himself. Instead, they abused their power and set in place an ever-lasting power struggle between people like Tony and authority.
ail in 1970’s Australia were derelict facilities flirting with sickness and disease due to their lack of hygiene. Tony recalls Long-Bay Jail, Goulburn Correctional Centre and Bathurst Correctional Complex all used “shit-tubs” rather than actual toilets. If you did not use these tubs outside of your cell, you ran the risk of using it alongside cell-mates. Since eating regimes consisted inside the cells and the tubs were changed only once a week, this was an obvious concern. Tony admitted it stripped his humanity for some time, “you felt like an animal but that’s just the way it was in those days.” In contrast, today’s prisons have dramatically changed their exterior shell. Cleaner cells and more humane conditions improved living standards but the facilities themselves face a new set of problems, “When I re-entered prison it was a culture-shock. It was like things looked better but problems were still there. They are just run by gangs now and I can’t see that changing any time soon”.
Unlike the vast majority who struggle with life after incarceration, Tony was given a chance at life as a functioning member of society. Once released,
“I was lucky. I worked on a water front where they don’t hold criminal records against you. They tried to get them on the straight and narrow…to earn legally. It’s common sense, if you don’t look after people they will look after themselves. They just need someone to believe in them and give them a start, sure 80% will fuck up but the 20% that don’t, deserve the second chance.”
After years of struggling with authority, probation restrictions and re-offending, Tony has proven to himself and his loved ones that he can function in the outside world. Yet its wrong to assume his reintegration owes thanks to his time in incarceration. The judicial system works to “….break you down and then you have to fight”. Time passes but feelings of resentment and frustration linger, “I’m still fighting them to this day” Tony admits laughing.
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