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Sometimes, religious figures can do what the prison systems can't

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 3 March 2003

He's here to help them all that he can,
To make them feel wanted he's a good holy man.
Sky pilot, sky pilot, how high can you fly?
You'll never, never, never reach the sky.

The lyrics of Eric Burdon and The Animals echoed a message of hope throughout the 1960s while The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones carried a thundering vibration of social revolution into the streets.

It was an era that gave birth to the Age of Aquarius. Hippies. Free love. Flower power. And a military madness that condoned a massacre in a Vietnamese hamlet called My Lai.


In Australia the social revolution came to a grinding halt with the decision that Ronald Ryan would be another casualty of a legal system that embraced the death penalty. The controversial hanging occurred inside Pentridge Prison on 3 February, 1967.

One of the many outspoken critics of the death penalty in relation to Ryan's execution was a sky pilot, universal prison jargon for a priest, nun or chaplain. Father John Brosnan, the sky pilot of Pentridge, ministered to Ryan during his last hours.

Fr Brosnan was a prison chaplain. A man of the cloth. A sky pilot. And to all those who walked the yard in Pentridge during the 1960s he was affectionately known as Broz - the priest with compassion.

Fr Brosnan's fight against social injustice left a lasting impression inside the walls of Pentridge, as it did on the streets of Melbourne, but those impressions blended with a decade of change that ended in 1969 - the year I went to prison for armed robbery.

My reflection of the 1970s was in stark contrast to the previous decade. There was still change and upheaval but the changes were occurring behind the walls of maximum security prisons.

The NSW State Penitentiary at Long Bay, as it was known in those days, was a volatile pressure cooker waiting to explode. Prisons elsewhere had already erupted like festering boils.


Tear gas and bloodied bodies littered the exercise yards of Attica, Folsom and San Quentin in the USA. British prisons at Durham, Wormwood Scrubs and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight had also erupted in flames.

The body count rose as the insurrection spread.

Inside Australian prisons the keepers and the kept eyed each other suspiciously waiting for some indication of the other's intentions.

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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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All articles by Bernie Matthews
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NSW Department of Corrective Services
QLD Department of Corrective Services
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