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Wilma’s story

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Other attempts to curb her defiance resulted with Wilma being force fed doses of the anti-psychotic medication Largactil which left her in a continual zombie-like state.

“I was so programmed I had no use for my thoughts, feelings or being human, I was alien, I belonged to the system. They crushed my spirit. They took my mind.”

It was July 24, 1963 when Wilma was transferred to the Hay Institution for Girls. The institutionalised violence and brutalisation of Parramatta was reinforced and perpetuated by legitimised state-sponsored carers at Hay.


“I didn’t know what Hay was about until I went there. Nobody did. But I knew I was going. I could feel it.” Wilma recalled. “I was scared shitless but I didn’t care. I wouldn’t let them see it. It was my way of hiding the fear. It was the only way I knew how to cope with the abuse.”

On her arrival at Hay Institution for Girls she was led into a cell-block where two officers held Wilma’s arms and a third hacked off her hair.

“They took my long hair. I wasn’t myself anymore. I felt naked.” Wilma said. “Hair changes everything. It changed my identity straight away. I will always remember looking up and getting yelled at: ‘GET YOUR EYES DOWN! WELCOME TO HAY!’”

It was then Wilma was told the rules:

“No talking. No eye contact. No attitude. Do it hard or easy. It doesn’t worry me. We will either make you or break you. Understood?”

Wilma was fitted out with clothes and then put to work scrubbing a cell with a bucket, wire brush and a brick.


“We had to scrub all the paint off walls and they had to be able hear the brick and the brush at all times. This went on for ten days straight.

“At Hay there was no education only conditioning, brainwashing and programming. It was a behavioural training experiment.” Wilma said. “We missed out on being children. There was no laughter, joy, fun or things that kids should have had. We were a child welfare experiment.”

After five months at Hay she was returned to Parramatta.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books). Full essay is available at

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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