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The Forum > Article Comments > A journey through the 'belly of the beast' - Part 1 > Comments

A journey through the 'belly of the beast' - Part 1 : Comments

By Bernie Matthews, published 20/12/2004

Bernie Matthews discusses the state of the Queensland prison system

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You tell us

“Years of incarceration have made me a successful failure.”

“tagged, bagged and neatly compartmentalised as a convicted felon whose views and observations are irrelevant or inconsequential”

Maybe taking responsibility for your own actions at an earlier age would have enabled you to avoid incarceration and the stigma which is attached and which limited your right to free movement within society.

Expecting ones views to “be heard and taken as serious” (not irrelevant nor inconsequential) is something we all have to “Earn”.
It is something which is not denied you because of your poor “career choices” but because – unless you have some “credibility” on talking about anything, the public tend to consider yours or anyone elses “view” as “unproven” and thus suspect and un-supported.

In summary –
Incarceration protects society from those who choose not to exercise responsibility for their actions.
There is not “right to be heard” – there is only a “right to quiet enjoyment”
Having managed to live for over 5 decades without my “right to quiet enjoyment” being curtailed by any term of imprisonment, my view to how “to do it” may well be considered as better than yours.
If you want to turn failure into success – it all starts with taking responsibility for yourself and for every action you take. It also requires you to accept yourself as you are and not as “society” chooses to label you. Because society labels us all, crudely and usually wrongly – it is not the label we are given that matters – it is the “label” we give ourself.
The “Self Applied Label” can being one of “excuse and blame the world” or it can be one of “self responsibility and respect for others”.– inside prison it is easy to “excuse and blame”. Outside of prison the only thing which works is “self responsibility and respect for others”

My partner works as an educator in the prison system of another state.
She observes after almost a decade of experience -

The only prisoners who “accept responsibility” for being in prison and show any "real" remorse for the crimes which brought them to prison are the culpable drivers.
Posted by Col Rouge, Monday, 20 December 2004 12:51:27 PM
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I think you have have missed the point mate, with all respect.If I could just respond to your points one at at time as you raised them.

1. Personal responsibility is an often referred to concept levelled at prisoners. But it has no place in the discussion once somebody is incarcerated. The point is that we take away all personal freedom and place them in dangerous and violent institutions with limited means to defend themselves. Their safety is therefore the responsibility of the State and one that the state is abrogating. It is hypocracy for the state to lamnent a lack of personal resposibilty while we shamefully distance ourslves from the fundamental right to freedom from assault.

2. Regardless of whether there is such a thing as a right to be heard (and I agree with you that there is probably not) we can learn from those who have experienced prisons fom the rough end. We ignore them at our peril. If somebody that has been through the system says it is not preparing people for life on the outside that opinion is worth throwing into the mix of the inputs. Lets face it, there is no shortage of closed off, angry, fearful people ready to let prisoners rot in a cell forever. A bit of balance will not harm the discussion and that is where the author is coming from I think. I for one think he may have earned it, if not what was the point of him paying his price to the community by going to prison and where in the sentencing remarks did it say "Never to speak again" You are of course free to not listen but not much progress was ever made through that approach.

3.You are wrong when you say incarceration protects. By definition it is after the event. It does not thererfore protect, it is purely reactionary. So for all the good argumets of taking wrongdoers out of society and locking them away, protection from the crime they are in there for is not one of them.

4.As a non felon you may have a point that your input is more valid than a felons on how to run the prison system. But that is not in issue here. All the government administrative positions, protection officers, service providers, police and the whole prison industry are full of non felons. There is no shortage of input from non felons and yet there are still problems. Maybe we don't have all the answers, maybe we should let a felon have his /her say. We are not exactly talking about handing over the Corrective Services portfolio to an ex-con here. What are we so afraid of that they should not speak. If the opinion lacks merit it will surely be exposed by intellectual and considered analysis so we have nothing to fear from ideas and opinions.

4.Not sure that I agree that what society labels you has no impact on your prospects. I might be wrong of course, but there is some fairly substantial literarture and research accepted at all levels of decision making to the effect that societies labels have a fair impact notwithstanding your best efforts at building personal self image.In any case what do you build self image with if not against the backdrop of the rest of societies feedback. Maybe we agree to call it the chicken and the egg syndrome on that one.

5.I like your point about respect for others but you don't seem to be lavishing it on the author. I hate to use anecdotal evidence as it is almost meaningless for the big issues but I know my old boss (in the Bank)would not provide services to any ex felons on the basis that they were not worthy of any help. Hardly helps a smooth transition to civilised participation in society.

Respect is a two way street and once a person believes they can not get by within the rules they will go outside them. That is human nature around the world and through the ages. It is fundamnetal to any society that inclusiveness equates to harmony. As we non felons hold the power, the social contract starts with us. I am struggling to see in yuor article an adherence to this most basic principle and, if absent, will you accept responsibility for the inevitable decline in social harmony that flows from its absence.

6.Your partners anecdote is fair enough but as soon as you get one felon who is a) not a culpable driver and b) ready to take responsibility for their actions she is just plain wrong. And given her proximity to corrections that makes her part of the problem.

The current state of prisons are a shameful indictment on our inability to conquer our fears about personal violence and an inability to forgive. We hear alot about tougher sentencing and precious little about prison reform. If this is the best we can do in 2004 so be it but acceptance of brutal pointless violence to satisfy our anger is barbaric and an inability to rise above our fears is the definition of cowardice. I am not suggesting you are any of these and I respect you taking the time to think the issue through but these are the challenges we face. I have little idea of how to improve it I suspect it is time to bring corrections facilities out of the dark ages and I for one am prepared to at least listen to what the author has to say

Just my thoughts

Posted by Bob B, Monday, 20 December 2004 4:12:36 PM
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Dear Bernie,
Firstly, it is a relief to see someone bringing attention to the prison system. Tim Anderson tried and for a mad moment, we all thought that Pauline Hansen was up to something, but of course she is too busy dancing. The best thing that ever happened -in my opinion- was the introduction of Vipassana Meditation into a NSW prison some years ago. I am sure that would have been successful, if the prisoners were to have actually known, that it had been approved or even existed.

I’d like to say that there is never an excuse to be cruel. If there were then, I am sure that all prisoners Would have plenty of excuses. There-for there is no excuse for those who are responsible for the treatment of prisons to treat them badly. For if that is the case, it would become, a tit for tat situation. The ‘innocent’ would be no better than the ‘guilty’. The act of cruelty in itself is wrong. It is not a matter of who is being cruel. It is also cruel to allow others to mistreat people.

The point made about ignoring the state of prisons is correct in that it certainly will come back on society. If those involved in dealing with criminals were wise people, which they are not, they would treat all beings with kindness and then there might be a chance of lowering crime in this country.

warmest regards to you, Helen Blyth
Posted by helen, Monday, 20 December 2004 9:56:39 PM
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Thank you Bernie.
I read your comments with great interest and found much resonance with my own experience of Government Departments. I thought at the outset that it would be appropriate to state some of my biases - perhaps the more obvious ones at least. Please bear with me.

I worked almost ten years in a State Public Service Department followed by two years in a Federal Department (Defence), with one year of that time spent on active service in South Vietnam – with a fair bit of experience up at the sharp end. The next twenty odd years involved studying and later practising as a solicitor – mainly in the Administrative Law area. In the first six months of my working life I learnt a singular lesson: governments do obfuscate, governments do procrastinate, governments do not like or appreciate scrutiny, governments do unfairly treat some citizens and favour others, and I dare say other factors could be added to this list.

This was my experience and I accepted it as a “given”, and much of the balance of my professional life was engaged in dealing at all levels with the consequences of government decisions and government inaction. At the end of this time, I was profoundly grateful to governments – they had, one way or another, provided much of my remuneration; however, and not simply for this reason, I have always been a supporter of government, especially when it is efficient and properly accountable. By way of contrast, there are many folk in other countries who no doubt complain about their government: be it lack of accountability, or secrecy, but they dare not complain out aloud, and not in public.

Of course governments are capable of, and do accomplish positive things - that is one of the best aspects of governments. But when we exercise that enormous privilege and elect them to act on our behalf, we oftentimes make the fundamental mistake of assuming that the election is the end of our involvement, and we return to the thousand and one other things that a busy life demands.

For many citizens in this country, it is generally only the adverse impact upon them of a government decision that prompts a quick and usually heated response. It was often the case that my Instructions were simply: “Do something”!! And so the formal process of questioning government began. The resolution sometimes took a phone call, other times it required litigation. Some sections of our media pride themselves on their ability to poke and prod and question government. In this area, much the same is required of a lawyer.

The process of scrutinising government is not something new – our recorded history and much of our literature is replete with the interactions of citizens and governments - and, as I cheerfully admit, that interaction continues to provide much work for lawyers. But therein is the lesson: do you simply let governments “get on with it”, and bother yourself with other things, or do you keep an eye on what government is doing? Even if you adhere to the former, then you may occasionally have to admit that governments can sometimes get it wrong.

If you believe the latter proposition has merit, then keeping an eye on what governments are doing is neither new nor strange; this is simply a part of the cut and thrust of every day life. The one-time Senator and founder of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, called the process: “Keeping the bastards honest”. Now, if you, dear reader, have no interest in this process, that is your right and privilege, but why on earth would you wish to criticise those who do – whatever their standing in society?

By the greatest of good fortune, sacrifice and hard work, we have in this country inherited a marvellous tradition - that of open criticism of governments, and it means that anyone, from Prime Minister to prisoner, may criticise any level of government and do so in the reasonable expectation that their criticism will at least be listened to and perhaps even acknowledged and accepted. If anyone doubts the existence of such a reasonable expectation in our society, then it is apparent such persons have never approached their local Member of Parliament on any subject, or written a “Letter to the Editor”. Perhaps they would not in any event bother to read such irrelevances. And if perchance there remains anyone out there who thinks this reasonable expectation is non-existent or unjustified, or indeed over-rated, then doubtless they would be happy to swap permanent places with someone in North Korea or Zimbabwe.

On the other hand, even those in this country who accept that it may be permissible to criticise governments (even if that is to be done sparingly and for a sufficiently “good” reason), do sometimes find themselves in the strange position of suggesting that only those with sufficient “stake” in the country may legitimately do so – and this perception is easily extended to the particular matter in question - thereby automatically excluding some and including others. The logical outcome of such a view is that those persons with no “rights” can have no complaints, and the simple extension of that view is that those with “reduced rights” have less standing than the rest of us. Much of the discussion in this country about asylum-seekers revolves around a similar assumption and conclusion.

One result of that debate is that Australia finds itself in the curious position of having agreed to accept the internationally recognised rights of asylum-seekers to land where they choose - and then forcibly detaining those who did so, despite no crime having been committed by them, either at International Law, or against the laws of the Commonwealth of Australia. When reduced to its fundamentals the situation is simply a case of the end justifying the means. The “end” was to stop the flow of asylum-seekers, and forcible detention was the means. As a result, arguments about pre-existing “rights” become irrelevant. If one seeks to raise basic issues like justice and fairness, they also are irrelevant. In the middle of all to-ing and fro-ing, the Government can confidently assert: “You elected us to do something about this problem, and we have – end of argument!”.

Now if you happen to agree with the Government’s position, you may yet perhaps be one of those “timid” souls who seriously take exception to the means employed. At the same time, even those who wholeheartedly support the Government’s position cannot deny the existence of opposing views, but the beauty of the “no rights – no complaints” position is that opposing views are of no consequence and thus irrelevant.

Of course, in a general sense it matters little precisely how the “no rights – no complaints” position is arrived at, because once accepted (with all its many variations), it becomes a very handy means of stamping on persistent and annoying dissent – particularly within the Government’s own ranks. And the bitter irony implicit in this position seems to have been lost upon Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition - who once upon a time apparently believed in the dictum that “Unity is Strength”.

At this point, there may still be some among you who ask: “What the hell does all this have to do with some uppity ex-con mouthing off?” If you cannot see the connection, then I am unable to enlighten you further.
Posted by Pilgrim, Sunday, 26 December 2004 10:39:17 PM
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whilst I think it is commendable that you are close enough to your partner to be able to live vicariously through her, taking on another person's biases unquestioningly is only perpetuating the myth that offenders deserve everything they get when they are in gaol.

It is abhorrent that for example, a teenage car thief could be sentenced to perhaps 2 to 3 years of being repeatedly gang raped because nobody wanted to consider him as having human rights because he wasn't likely enough to not reoffend.

So the government turning a blind eye to the ritual rape and torture of young male prisoners becomes permissable because they socially and politically aren't as important as young male businessmen?

So rich people have more right to having human rights than repeat offenders[considering of course that the principle cause of offending has been found to be poverty]?

If people only knew the things an average inmate, whether a petty thief or drink-driver, experiences inside, they would not make that incorrect and inhumane judgement so flippantly.

I think it is very interesting Pauline Hanson's name was mentioned here, as before she walked in the shoes of those she condemned she was very prone to making premature judgements about people from socio-economic groups different from her own, but now...

It really doesn't take much for a kid to make a mistake, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and once they've have done a stretch and have made networks with those they've done that time with, it is pretty likely they'll be a convenient culprit for a lazy cop at some point in the future or reoffend, and that is all it takes to be a repeat offender.

I am glad that the U.N., despite their apathy, still gives at least lip service to all humans having a right to the same rights regardless of their creed, colour or social standing.
Posted by Magnet, Monday, 27 December 2004 3:52:59 AM
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I agree that rehablitation programs are needed,however just to keep someone in gaol can cost between $80,000 & $100,000 per year for each prisoner without any programs.If we had more discipline,less rights,and families that relied on their own resources than soft option Govt solutions,we wouldn't need as many gaols or social workers.
Posted by Arjay, Tuesday, 28 December 2004 7:44:37 PM
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