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Abu Ghraib one day, Queensland the next

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 24 May 2004

To know prison you have to experience the finality of a cell door slamming shut behind your back. You have to realise the futility of hope and experience the humiliation of having to spread your buttocks for prison guards during a strip search. Then you mentally switch off to the kicks and baton blows that rain upon you as you try to breathe through the blood that flows from your nose and mouth. If you have experienced these things you will understand the world of Abu Ghraib.

It is a world where elfin faced women like Lynndie England are photographed leading prisoners around on a dog leash or humiliating nude prisoners by pointing to their genitals with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. A place where men like US Army Specialist Charles Graner, a former US prison guard in civilian life, was placed in charge of the military police in Abu Ghraib’s Section 1A where the torture and abuse occurred and is photographed standing over a pile of naked prisoners. Graner is also accused of using a baton to bash a prisoner who had been shot and was handcuffed to a bed. On other occasions he is accused of using attack dogs on prisoners and sexually abusing them.

The actions of Graner and England coincide with other photographs depicting similar abuses that brought international condemnation and resulted in the pair being court martialled along with five other MP’s. All seven applied the Eichmann defence - they were only following orders from their superiors to ‘soften up’ prisoners prior to interrogation. (Adolph Eichmann was the architect of the gas chambers that resulted in the Jewish holocaust during WW2. On 11 May 1960 he was kidnapped from Brazil by Israeli agents and made to stand trial for war crimes. Eichmann maintained he was only a clerk following orders from his superiors. The Israeli court found him culpable for his actions and he was hanged at Ramie Prison on 31 May 1962).


Abu Ghraib is synonymous with the indiscriminate use of brutality, humiliation, sensory deprivation and psychological torture used as a control mechanism for those in charge. A place where the catalogue of abuse was allowed to continue unchecked until the media breached the shroud of secrecy that enveloped it and made the public aware of what really happens on the other side of the wall. These are truly rare glimpses of the incarceration process where the full horror of man’s inhumanity to man are finally revealed but if the Australian public thinks that such a litany of abuse is confined to Abu Ghraib then they are sadly mistaken.

Occasionally the Australian public received rare glimpses of the brutality, humiliation, sensory deprivation and psychological torture that occurs inside their tax-payer funded prisons but unlike Abu Ghraib Australian prison authorities have managed to circumvent public scrutiny by shrouding the prisons in secrecy under the guise of maintaining security. In Queensland the prisons are protected from unwanted media attention by legislation that forbids media access to prisons under threat of legal sanction.

In 1996 former Courier Mail journalist, Ms Ella Riggert, was fined $1050 for conducting an interview with Tracey Wiggington, Queensland’s alleged ‘vampire killer’, at Brisbane Womens Prison. Two other Queensland journalists, Ms Lou Robson and Channel Nine ACA reporter, Margueritte Rossi, also suffered the same fate when they conducted ‘unauthorised’ telephone interviews with prisoners from the Woodford and Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centres. Both journalists were fined $300 but no conviction was recorded.

Riggert, Robson and Rossi were constricted by law to accept the sanctions of Section 104 (10) of The Queensland Corrective Services Act 1988 No.89 which carried a maximum penalty of $3000 or two years imprisonment for anyone who; (f) without the authority of the Commission, interviews a prisoner (within the meaning of section 10) or obtains a written or recorded statement from such a prisoner, whether within or outside of a prison commits an offense against this Act. The Queensland Corrective Services Act 2000 reinforced the previous Draconian sanctions with harsher penalties for those who tried to penetrate the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Queensland prison system.

The legislative power routinely bestowed upon Queensland’s Department of Corrective Services allows the prisoneaucracy to indiscriminately reinforce and perpetuate censorship policies that restrict media access to prisons and prisoners for their own self-serving interest. The threat of that legislative power is regularly employed by departmental lawyers to contain scandals that could be politically sensitive in the public arena. It also increases the difficulty for Queensland journalists to be impartial when reporting prison related incidents because independent corroboration or dispute of any facts from prisoner sources is not available under threat of punishment or arbitrary sanctions.

The current Queensland legislation also allows prison officials to be selective when responding to media requests for interviews with prisoners.


Queensland journalist Robert Reid requested an interview with lifer, Ernie Knibb, to confirm details he wrote in an article about Knibb’s conviction that was subsequently published in Australian Penthouse during 1996 (pp34 -126). QDCS refused Reid’s request because; ‘Knibb was a very difficult inmate. One of 2999 out of 3000 inmates who claim they are innocent. The courts have told us he is guilty of a horrific crime and I support any move to keep him away from the media, any move whatsoever.”

QDCS was not so reluctant to grant permission to another prisoner, former Queensland Police Commissioner, Terry Lewis, who was interviewed by Rod Henshaw on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program during 1997. Lewis claimed during the program that his imprisonment had resulted from a ‘set up’ and that he was innocent of all charges that had been leveled against him which had caused his subsequent 14-year term of imprisonment.

The ABC Catalyst program made a formal request in 2002 to interview another prisoner, Marc Andre Renton , after claims that he had been wrongfully imprisoned for bank robbery and that DNA evidence used to convict him was scientifically flawed. The request was refused on the basis that Renton was a dangerous prisoner – a convicted bank robber who had participated in a prison riot.

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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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