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A journey through the 'belly of the beast' - Part 3

By Bernie Matthews - posted Friday, 24 December 2004

This is the third of a three part series.  Part one can be read here and part two here.

The ramifications of the 1997 Melbourne Cup Day mass escape from the Sir David Longland Correctional Centre (SDLCC) reinforced an atmosphere of never-ending punitive sanctions. Russell Cooper’s political knee-jerk reaction compounded an already dangerous situation within the Queensland prison system.

The installation of cladding minimised sunlight and fresh air in the cells and exercise yards of B Block and pricked a festering boil of anger and frustration. The fact that B7 (the Murri unit) was left untouched as a result of the Black Deaths in Custody recommendations, had an effect of reinforcing a view that there were two rules - one for white prisoners and one for Murri prisoners.


Garny Mickelo, a lifer and the elder statesman of all Murri prisoners in the Centre at that time, demanded that his people be accorded the same sanctions as other prisoners in the Centre. SDLCC prison administrators turned a deaf ear to his protestations.

In a tense climate where aggression, anger and frustration are predominant factors, the added ingredient of racism creates a volatile mixture that is commonplace inside US prisons, but until then had never been experienced in Australian prisons. That situation changed dramatically.

In July 1998 a Murri prisoner, Leon Wallace, staged a three-hour rooftop protest at SDLCC and the information was leaked to Courier-Mail journalists Doneman and Targett by SDLCC prison guards.

Relying on information spoon-fed from “official prison sources” the unsuspecting journalists reported that the roof-top protest had occurred because: “Officers said Leon Wallace had asked to be taken out of the detention unit and placed on protection because he feared other prisoners.” The consequence of Wallace being branded a “protected prisoner” was equivalent to prison officials and The Courier-Mail delivering him a death sentence inside the prison sub-culture of a maximum-security facility

Following publication in The Courier-Mail a Queensland Department of Corrective Services (QDCS) spokesperson said there had been no request for protection on record from Wallace and that he had told staff he was upset over being given a lengthy sentence for assaulting two Woodford prison guards. Despite attempts to water down the situation the damage was done and Wallace became a marked man inside SDLCC.

On September 21, 1998, prison guards again provoked racial tension inside B Block at SDLCC. It resulted in two prisoners, Anthony “Bikie" Barnes and Andrew "Mugwa" Kranz being assaulted by a group of Murri prisoners inside the “spine” of B Block. The two prisoners were “canned” (assaulted with cans of baked beans packed into socks) and again racial tension escalated inside the prison and eventually spread to other prisons throughout Queensland.


On September 24, 1998 SDLCC became the first racially segregated prison in Australia when Nimal DeSilva, the then General Manager of SDLCC, made B Block a “whites only” cell-block. The prison was locked down and all Indigenous prisoners were transferred out of B Block into C Block.

The prison bakery was also segregated as “whites only” and Indigenous prisoners were not allowed to be employed. A fax authorised by Mike Exton, Administration and Finance Manager at SDLCC, was clear in its demand:

Please be advised that due to the current racial tension between Murri and white inmates at this Centre ONLY WHITE inmates are permitted to attend work at this stage until further advised. This arrangement is under the direction of Administration and Finance Manager, Mike Exton.

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This is an edited extract of a submission to the Uniting Care Centre for Social Justice on the Queensland Prison system. This is the third part in a three part series. The first part can be read here and the second part here.

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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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