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A view from a living hell

By Bernie Matthews - posted Friday, 12 May 2006

It’s ironical they started demolishing Katingal Special Security Unit the day before my 57th birthday. Its demolition created a psychological tsunami that flooded my mind with memories from 30 years ago. It was also a poignant reminder of the lyrics Johnny Cash sang when he produced his album in San Quentin in February 1969.

“San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.”

Katingal had been living hell to me and every man whoever stepped into the place. As the only man alive to have served the longest time imprisoned inside Katingal I too had seen them come and go and I’d even seen them die. Now, after 18 years' jail time as a bank robbing career criminal, I had finally outlived the nightmare that replaced Grafton tracs. (“Trac” is prison slang for an intractable prisoner or a place where intractable prisoners are housed.)


My journey to Katingal began on December 9, 1971, when they transferred me to Grafton as a trac. The previous day I had attacked two screws (“screw” is slang for a prison guard) during an escape attempt. At the time I was serving 18 years imprisonment for armed robbery and had already notched up two escapes. Prison authorities were determined I wasn’t going to complete the hat trick. They sent me to Grafton for rehabilitation.

Since 1943 Grafton was the Alcatraz of the NSW prison system. It had been used to dissuade prisoners from committing breaches of prison discipline at the risk of being sent there to get flogged and baton-whipped by Grafton screws. The institutionalised violence and indiscriminate brutality had been officially sanctioned by the NSW Department of Corrective Services for 33 years.

Unfortunately the rehabilitation process had a reverse effect upon me. I was returned to Grafton on four separate occasions between 1971 and 1975 for continued breaches of prison discipline ranging from attempt escape to assaulting prison guards. I became a candidate for the new-age Pavlovian concept they called Katingal Special Security Unit.

Fred Harbecke, a lifer and an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, was the first trac transferred into Katingal. Fred had been involved in attempted escapes from Parramatta and Maitland jails. It was a history that had earned him notoriety as one of the most dangerous men inside the NSW prison system who would stop at nothing in his quest for freedom.

Earl Heatley, another lifer, tried to escape from Goulburn jail with two other prisoners but the trio were caught and transferred to Grafton by plane. During the flight Earl and Dave Barben attacked the screws and tried to hijack the plane. Passengers helped overpower the prisoners and the hijack was thwarted. Four years later Earl joined Harbecke and they tried to go over the wall at Maitland. Earl was the second trac transferred into Katingal.

On November 7, 1975 I became the third trac transferred into the building. It would be two years and eight months before I ever saw daylight again.


My transfer from Grafton was uneventful and I soaked up the sights of freedom flashing past. Freedom takes on a significant meaning when you are shackled in the back of a car travelling to an unknown destination shrouded in secrecy. My gut muscles began to tense at the gates of Long Bay. The anticipation intensified as the car sped along the palm-tree lined drive to my new home.

Katingal sat like a shapeless white spider inside a chain-link web of wire fences topped with barbed wire. Searchlights dotted the compound area as the car drove through two sets of gates. A stainless steel entrance slowly yawned open and screws came spewing out. They all carried batons. The car drove into the gaping hole and the door shut behind it. Disorientation took absolute control.

The sterile, windowless, concrete building housed 40 cells segmented into eight cell-blocks. The cell-blocks were self contained units with a shower cubicle and workshop-recreation area electronically controlled from a central control panel. They were all colour-coded to minimise disorientation for the screws.

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First published inthe Sydney Sun-Herald March 26, 2006.

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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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