Regular readers of On Line Opinion will recognise Bernie Matthews as a frequent contributor. His columns have covered important social justice issues: from the “killing fields” of Queensland’s prisons, through the forensic use of DNA technology, to his exposés of wrongful conviction cases.
Matthews’ work, spanning three decades, has been prolific and powerful, especially in his indefatigable endeavours to present the problems of incarceration and injustice to mainstream media. This is a huge achievement given our penchant to ignore inmates and disregard what happens behind the ever-creeping razor wire.
Indeed Matthews was the very first “ex-prisoner to be admitted into the Australian Journalists Association” in the early 1990s. He recently graduated with a degree in mass communication from the University of Southern Queensland and has won several media awards for his work. Thus his passion for prisons is underpinned by sound professional credentials. All this passion, professionalism and personal experience is evidenced in his recent full length book.
Intractable describes Katingal Special Security Unit - Australia’s first super-max prison which opened in 1975 inside Sydney’s Long Bay Jail and which thankfully had an ingloriously brief tenure in New South Wales penal history. His 408-page tome across 14 chapters with a swag of end materials, was published in October last year but officially launched at Parliament House in Sydney by the Honorable Dr Meredith Burgman earlier this year.
Matthews is in a prime position to describe “hell”, as the subtitle calls Katingal. At 22 years of age he was classified as “intractable” and was among the first, and eventually its longest serving inmate, spending 1,000 days there before seeing “daylight again”. The “tracs” were anyone who escaped or tried to escape, rioted, assaulted a prison officer, or committed other serious breaches.
But as Matthews says, “prison authorities used the classification as an arbitrary sanction to isolate and brutalise prisoners who were deemed uncontrollable in the mainstream prison population”. It was applied to the worst 1 per cent of male prisoners at the then-horrific Grafton Gaol - which was about 20 inmates - who were “incorrigible, recalcitrant [and] beyond redemption”.
Katingal comprised 40 cells measuring 1.5 metres each in eight blocks that were colour-coded and had spy holes for surveillance. It was characterised by sensory deprivation and physical control which Matthews labels an “electronic zoo”. Its name allegedly derives from one of the Aboriginal languages and refers to a traditional practice of social isolation for those who had contravened customary law.
As criminologist Paul Wilson notes in the epilogue, the Nagle Royal Commission slammed Katingal as a “failed experiment” that was “ill-conceived” from the start. It had “a lack of sunlight and fresh air, inadequate or nonexistent employment [that] all led to hunger strikes, attempted suicides, and a general sense of alienation and despair among those entombed” within it. It was closed after 2 years 8 months and eventually demolished last year.
This book though is more than a history of a single correctional facility. It provides the background on what had gone before, as well as an analysis of the legacies of a place like Katingal. It also includes excellent descriptions of the state’s prisons from youth detention centres like Yasmar and Mt Penang to Tamworth, Grafton, Maitland and Parramatta. It begins at Grafton in 1943 when it housed its first group of “tracs”. Having read this book I now have a true sense of the “evil” of this carcereal hell, its repercussions, and its links to prisons today.
It is also a highly personalised account, for I learned about Bernie, his family and early life. In one scenario he describes how his mother defended his juvenile exploits and said he was “never going to end up inside”, but events showed otherwise with his early break and enter offences landing him in juvenile detention at the age of 15.
The book’s acknowledgements give testimony to Bernie’s many friendships over the long term - a wide mix of “crims” and “squareheads” in his jargon. It also highlights the vagaries of justice or the porous line that separates crims and non-crims. Bernie describes how he was once sentenced to 28 days solitary confinement by Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Murray Farquhar who later was convicted himself of perverting the course of justice and given five years in custody at Long Bay - “karma” the book says.
Matthews writes of other “legendary characters” such as Darcy Dugan, Lenny Lawson, Raymond Denning, Fred Harbecke and Neddy Smith. There is a cast of hundreds from crims to screws, and a dramatic litany of events such as bashings, receptions, escape attempts, revenge attacks, deaths in custody, crime planning, as well as discussion of the Bathurst riots in the 1970s that explores the links to similar upheavals in corrections in the UK, France, Germany, New Zealand and the USA. There are also many themes canvassed like the culture of prison violence, as well as the helplessness and vulnerabilities of inmates.