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Abuse within prisons makes prisoners more violent upon release

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 31 May 2004

Reports of brutality and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib caused the US government to go into denial until confronted with irrefutable evidence such as photos and digital images of the abuse revealed by the US media. The government’s damage control phase of the scandal sought to circumvent further political embarrassment by quickly apportioning blame to seven US army reservists; Private Lynndie England, Specialist Charles Graner, Specialist Jeremy Sivits, Sergeant Javal Davis, Sergeant Ivan Frederick, Specialist Sabrina Harman and Specialist Megan Ambuhl.

With the exception of Sivits, who pleaded guilty and received a one-year prison sentence on the proviso that he testify against the others, the remaining six accused have all claimed they were following orders from senior intelligence officers and private CIA contractors. Those claims indicate that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not the isolated actions of individuals but rather a deliberate policy of US intelligence officials to soften up detainees and make them more cooperative during questioning.

The Australian public was confronted with similar accusations during 1978 when the NSW Royal Commission into Prisons headed by Justice Nagle found that the NSW Department of Corrective Services and its Ministers of both political persuasions had unofficially sanctioned the systematic brutalisation of prisoners at Grafton Jail from 1943 to 1976. A former Grafton prison guard, John Pettit, testified to the extent of that brutalisation:


There was a reception committee procedure for all intractable prisoners received at the jail. The committee comprised of select officers who would wait in a Wing to receive the prisoner. I was mainly on patrol duty and was not chosen for the job. The usual procedure was that the prisoner was first stripped and searched. He was then assaulted by the reception officers.

Sometimes three, four or five of them would assault the prisoner with their batons to a condition of semi-consciousness. On occasions the prisoner urinates and his nervous system ceases to function normally. After the flogging he was assigned a cell to recuperate. When he has recuperated he was then marched back to A Wing and there, depending on what he was sent to Grafton for, he is placed in the Special Yards or taken back to his cell and beaten again. This reception procedure for intractables was standard in the three years I was at Grafton Jail. I had frequently seen "tracs" in the showers after their reception and I frequently observed multiple bruises from neck to knee and also numerous welts and abrasions. I also observed the occasional black eye. During the time I was at Grafton the doctor (I think Prentiss) would not examine these prisoners until the bruises had healed. Sometimes it was about a week or so after the man had been received into the jail before he saw the doctor. (Evidence given by ex-Grafton prison guard, John Pettit, to the NSW Royal Commission into Prisons. Transcript page 3147).

I was transferred to Grafton as an intractable prisoner on four separate occasions during the period 1971-75 for escaping from prison and assaulting prison guards. Apart from the systematic brutality I personally experienced as an intractable prisoner at Grafton (outlined in my evidence to The NSW Royal Commission into Prisons on March 1978) I also chronicled my observations of the Grafton rehabilitation process and how it impacted upon society outside the walls.

The first significant result of Grafton’s rehabilitation processes was the death of 15 people inside Brisbane’s Whiskey-Au-Go-Go nightclub in March 1973. The men accused and later convicted for that crime were James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart. Both were Grafton alumni.

My next observation was how young non-violent offenders turn into crazed killers upon their release from prison after the Grafton experience.

Men like Kevin Crump who teamed up with Alan Baker to commit what a trial judge termed the worst murder in the annals of Australian criminal history. Both men were convicted of the 1973 murder of Virginia Morse, a pregnant grazier’s wife who was raped and butchered in northern NSW.


Archie McCafferty became Australia’s answer to Charlie Manson after he had experienced Grafton and returned to the world outside its walls. During 1973 McCafferty led a drug-crazed gang on an indiscriminate killing spree that resulted in the deaths of three people. McCafferty was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment and served 23 years before he was deported to Scotland in May 1997.

Then there was the young non-violent Russian immigrant, Peter Schneidas, who was so affected by the Grafton experience that he did not wait until he was released from prison before killing. In 1978 Schneidas killed prison guard John Mewburn by pulverising his head with a hammer at Long Bay Jail. Schneidas spent the next 20 years in solitary and isolation inside some of NSW worst prisons until they released him in 1997 and he died from a heroin overdose eight months later, having becoming addicted in prison.

As the years melted into each other my initial observations during the 1970s began to take on significant proportions that indicated an alarming trend – men who had been brutalised by the prison system extracted a shocking revenge on society once they were released. It was a trend that the NSW Department of Corrective Services has never bothered to statistically report. Maybe it would reinforce previous assumptions that physical or psychological brutalisation during the incarceration process was counterproductive beyond comprehension.

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Winner of 2004 Queensland Media Awards - Best Online/News Wire Report – Electronic Media.

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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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