The murder of Carl Williams in a Victorian maximum security prison is troubling on many levels. It suggests that something is not only rotten in the state of Victoria, but positively putrid. On the watch of the prison authorities and the state, Williams was pummelled and left to die. The means of executing this act was also something that would have made internal murders within the prison systems of various countries proud: the use of part of an exercise bike. The room in the Acacia Unit of Barwon Prison was meant to be under constant CCTV surveillance, yet this was to no avail for the victim. Prison guards were a mere 10 meters away as the broken and battered Williams lay dying. This foul mix gets richer: the same day Williams was murdered, it was revealed by the Herald Sun that the police were funding the rather high private school fees of his daughter, Dhakota. Deals, it seems, have been done. Mouths needed to be shut.
The focus has been on Williams as a character, a dark figure of a vicious underworld which waged internal wars in Melbourne for 20 years that left 35 people dead. The Victorian Premier John Brumby has made no secret about his aversion to the deceased. The Labor pollsters are taking the pulse of populism in Victoria for added effect. “I know there's been some calls today for a royal commission. To be honest, what occurred in the prison was obviously unacceptable, but the person concerned was a serial killer” (The Age, Apr 21).
Brumby, in also diminishing the legal position of the deceased, also made a pitch for Victorian exceptionalism. According to the sagacious Premier, the royal commissions in Queensland and New South Wales that exposed tiers of corruption were ghastly legal spectacles rather than useful tools of accountability. “If I had the choice of putting tens of millions or hundreds of millions into an ICAC or putting into hospitals, or bushfires, or more police, I’d choose the latter.” Rarely has Australia seen such a direct apologia for the status quo.
When it comes to the administration of justice, deterrence and reform, a prison system that does not do its part to protect not merely public citizens but its inmates is a sham. What is often forgotten in the basic administration of punishment is the public interest of incarcerating a dangerous individual on the one hand, and the protection and reform of that character within. A refusal to recognise the balance might risks sending us back to self-directed retribution.
All Victoria's Chief Police Commissioner Simon Overland has come up with is the almost glib remark about what might transpire from this event. “We're obviously looking at the implications of the event to try and understand where this might go and do everything we can to make sure we don't go back into a spiral of violence” (BBC News, Apr 20). But even he had to admit that Williams had proven somewhat “useful” to the state. It may well be that Williams proved too useful. A theory that this murder was staged to silence co-operative police witnesses has been mooted.
Suggestions that the prison authorities should investigate themselves is fatuous at best. The opposition leader Ted Baillieu is right in questioning whether Corrections Victoria should be given the task of looking at their own dismal record on this point. You don't get students to mark their own exams, even if such prevailing wisdom might be challenged from time to time. The police watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity, has been slated with the job of conducting an inquiry into the sordid episode in addition to the routine coronial inquiries.
A full and informed royal commission may be the only option. A murder inquiry would itself be narrow, as Williams' lawyer Rob Stary has admitted. Stary has also been willing to consider that Williams might well have been dispensed with for his vast knowledge of police corruption. 'Dare I say he was a goldmine of information about police corruption in the state of Victoria' he posed to the ABC. Assassination, a point so powerfully made by Bernard Shaw, is the most extreme form of censorship.
Colleen Lewis, professor of criminology at Monash University, considers the situation here even more severe that those that preceded the Fitzgerald and Wood royal commissions in Queensland and New South Wales. The royal commission’s purview would have to stretch at least to 1995 where instances of a rampantly corrupt police drug squad were exposed (The Age, Apr 24).
The resistance to a royal commission is typical of authorities who fear imminent exposure through public hearings and findings. For one thing, it is bound to give huge amount of employment to justice providers in the law. Lifting the hood up on the police services, prison authorities and an assortment of connections within a state choking under suppression orders and gangland ties is bound to create quite a stir. All we have now is an accused man of 36 who has been charged with the murder in the Geelong Magistrates Court. The rest, let us hope, will not be silence.
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