On January 7, 1990, Australia’s only murder inside a women’s prison occurred at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre at Boggo Road. The old jail, overcrowded and dilapidated, had been simmering with barely contained tension for some time. Many of the 106 women were locked together; two to a cell, in the “bottom” section of the jail behind a gate that prison officers chose to keep shut, restricting the already minimal movement of prisoners and ensuring a tinderbox environment of festering pressures.
It was a humid, soupy Brisbane summer. In the aftermath of the festive season it was a high-stress time – mothers locked away from their children, women separated from other loved ones. As I remember it, it was an afternoon heavy with threat – if someone looked at another person the wrong way, we knew they’d blow.
I was sitting next to Debbie Dick when two women, wielding sharpened barbecue forks, came from behind us on a covered veranda outside the dining room. I was fit and wiry and managed to swing away from the blades. But Debbie Dick didn’t stand a chance. Storm Brooke, who later confessed to her murder, had broken into a frenzy of stabbing, which stopped only when I picked up a chair and crashed it onto her back. Brooke ran off with the weapons; I was bleeding with a slight wound to my chest. As I crouched over Debbie Dick, life ebbed out of her on the hard concrete floor.
Two notable actions occurred in the aftermath of the murder: my refusal to “dog” (I chose instead the prisoners’ code of payback); and an extraordinary, but short-lived, experiment in reform by a government prepared to take the “punishment” out of prisons.
In the ensuing years, the unlikely results of these two actions coalesced to produce the controversial prison advocacy organisation Sisters Inside and to catapult me into the public eye more spectacularly than my original sentence for drug trafficking had done.
At the beginning of 1990, at the same time as Storm Brooke was sharpening her weapons and biding her time, Queensland was still congratulating itself on electing its first Labor government in 32 years. Wayne Goss was elected in December 1989 with a clear mandate to reform the state’s tired and backward institutions after the sordid revelations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
Keith Hamburger, appointed director-general of Corrective Services, had reformist ideas, too, but Debbie’s murder was the catalyst for the kind of change even a new government might have been shy of. Together with the new manager of the prison, George Brand, he did the opposite of what would be expected today: he loosened the rules. Effectively, Hamburger and Brand opened up the prison.
The idea was to involve the community in the running of the prison and to get prisoners out and interacting with the community. Prisoners were given more leave of absence, enabling low-security women to spend more time with their families; supervised outings were organised and women could attend university and other courses; and community organisations were invited into the prison to discuss ways to improve general conditions.
Initiatives aimed at getting prisoners into the community worked well. Women were given some trust, and a stake in their own futures, often for the first time in their lives; they were given responsibility and limited power over their own rehabilitation; and enticing tastes of a better life outside.
The notorious bottom gate at Boggo Road was left unlocked at Brand’s direction. Low-security prisoners worked in a plant nursery just outside the wall. Prison officers took a group running along the nearby river path several times a week; there were canoeing expeditions, a dinner at the Crest Hotel. There were no escape attempts. Over time, the separation of various factions inside, combined with the less-oppressive atmosphere, defused the unspoken demands for payback. My single-minded obsession with avenging Debbie’s murder abated.
The involvement of community organisations, however, fell flat. My actions these days are predicated on one enduring philosophy: a “power with”, as opposed to a “power over”, approach to people. It was those community organisations’ “power over” approach that failed them, an approach that still fails the do-gooders who come to Sisters Inside anxious to help.
In the beginning, these agencies came into the prison and spent all their time talking to management. No one came near the women. No one came to us to ask how to fix the problems – and we were the ones who knew. Later, some of these people got to know us and attached themselves to us as friends. But that only lasted while we followed their line. Once we got on our feet and began to challenge them and some of their actions, we were dropped or accused of “going back to our old ways”.