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Our prisons are boiling pots for angry people and universities of crime

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 17 February 2003

Years of incarceration have made me a successful failure. To the world out there I am a neatly packaged convicted felon whose views and observations are irrelevant but I will offer them to you anyway – just for the hell of it!

Prisons are still society's garbage can. Places where unwanted rubbish is dumped. Out of sight. Out of mind. They are places where Ministerial portfolios are gauged by the amount of adverse publicity generated and responsibility is delegated to somebody with a shotgun and a roll of razor wire who has a mandate to ensure the streets are not sullied by any unwanted presence of a felon before he has done his time. Rehabilitation has become a four-letter word that is alien to a system that relies on revenge and retribution in answer to the public's perceived notion of what they want the incarceration process to accomplish.

It is a curious sight to witness the "law and order" debate raging out there with such a wide cross-section of the community all eager to offer views as to how men like me should do time. Journalists. Politicians. Lawyers. Judges. Doctors. Academics. Psychologists. Social workers. Prison administrators. It is ironic that the only person not allowed to contribute to that debate is the prisoner him/herself.


Emotive argument flies back and forth; "make 'em do every day", "bring back the death penalty", "hang 'em", "maggots", bleeding hearts", and the debate bubbles along with the same well-worn arguments that have no consideration for future generations who may suffer the consequences of today's draconian proposals that continue to dehumanise, desensitise and make angry men angrier.

Twenty years ago a rebellious and angry young man wrote an article that described how incarceration had become Australia's most effective educational system. I was that angry young man.

Prison, the end of the line, had become the university of crime. It was 1979. The International Year of The Child. I was serving an 18-year prison sentence for armed robbery inside the State Penitentiary at Parramatta, NSW, when those observations were made in Brown & Zdenkowsky's The Prison Struggle:

"Prison is the end of the road. An overcrowded garbage can that society carefully chooses to ignore. For most of us behind these walls, the road to prison has been a steady procession of Boy's Homes and Reformatories. To some, we are crime statistics. To others, we are a combination of animals, brutes, deviates, psychopaths, products of broken homes, or just plain psychologically unbalanced individuals. Despite whichever tag we are labelled with, the undeniable fact remains - we are all prisoners behind these walls but the majority of us are experts too. We know the juvenile/justice system intimately. We know it from the gut level of experience. And prison is a direct extension of the juvenile/justice system.

During the past nine years in prison there is one thing that has occurred with monotonous regularity: the guys I knew at Mt Penang and Albion Street and Yasmar (NSW Juvenile Reformatories during the 60s and 70s) were in those places for truancy, running away from home, stealing and in some cases house-breaking. Today I see those same guys I knew 14 and 15 years ago walking the yard. Now they are doing time for murder, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping. Recently I walked the yard with a guy I knew from Yasmar in 1964. He was in there for stealing a bicycle but today he is doing a 14 year sentence for armed robbery. Some may look at this example in cynical vein and remark that it is a big step from stealing bicycles to robbing banks. It isn't a big step at all. It is a progressive extension of the juvenile/justice system ...

The juvenile/justice system is the most efficient education system in the State. It is a timeless machine that sucks children in at one end with the seal of judicial responsibility and spews them out again on their 18th birthdays to become endless flotsam and jetsam that continually float through the NSW penal system during their adult life.


Having been taught to steal and commit petty crime at Kindergarten (Mittagong) and taught the values of the con, lie and cheating at Primary School (Daruk), and then the High School education at Mt Penang teaches them skills to make an impression in the life of crime. Tamworth and Hay Reformatories blunt their sensitivities with brutality. Their education secures jobs for people who would be otherwise unemployed – magistrates, judges, police and prison guards."

Nearly three decades later and maximum-security prisons are still the universities of crime.

Incentives for prisoners to participate in conventional education and rehabilitation programs during the 90s were forfeited to the punishment and retribution concept of the "get tough" purges of politicians and prison administrators. Criminality has again become the preferred option on the yard and is learned at a faster rate than numeracy or literacy inside a system that has replaced brick walls and gun towers with razor wire, sophisticated technology and privatisation.

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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.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Bernie Matthews
Related Links
Federal Attorney-General's home page
International Center for Restorative Justice
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