It may take a few posts for me to find my flow and direction. Being of an inquisitive nature I tend to study hard at whatever it is I’m involved in at the time, and crime and punishment was no exception. The laws and mores of a society are there for a reason and they are handed down through the generations. For the western world they are based mainly on biblical laws, all of the thou shalt nots with edicts thrown in that suited governments of the various era’s. It made my hair stand on end when I read of the treatment of children by the courts right up until the early 1900’s. I can only use England as my reference and it opened my eyes to the failure of the judicial system over the centuries. I know, millions of words have been written on this subject and yet even now the system still doesn’t work. Yes it keeps criminals off the streets and when they are released the majority enter society wiser and more determined to succeed, as criminals.
Capital punishment, jail, fines, court orders rarely change the habitual criminal. Jail is a risk they take in their chosen career path. We have this ‘it will never happen to me’ mentality and criminals are no different. Why else when children were hanged for stealing, did pickpockets roam the crowds at public executions – stealing from others? I still find it hard to comprehend the mentality that puts property above humanity. For the cost of a loaf of bread, a handkerchief, or a few coins a person could be put to death. What of the heartlessness of the executioner who would have to swing on the legs of these children so their necks broke? It disturbs me still and tells me that no amount of punishment will stop a determined person, especially when that person is driven by a need to eat, to survive. Abject poverty and a heavy-handed, wealthy higher class made the rules.
The latter 1800’s saw a shift in society and the treatment of child criminals; it didn’t stop the brutality of prison life. They were designed to make life inside as unappealing as possible, fair enough but when your life on the outside is little better, then it defeats the purpose. Jails are different now, some say too lenient and many show their inner brutality with calls for bestial treatment of prisoners. The seeds of criminality are sown early. It’s the child’s environment that determines to a large degree its future, the old nature versus nurture discussion. When children are raised in families that don’t care or are indeed criminals with a heritage of criminality, then the odds are stacked against them. If you are stealing, lighting fires and assaulting people as a child the chances are you will carry it over to adulthood. Don’t get me wrong here, I firmly believe that those who commit crimes against the person, murder, manslaughter, assaults, rapes, crimes committed whilst armed should serve custodial sentences. Property offenders need to be able to pay off their victims and should work for that result. Drug importers and dealers are a pestilence, they ruin lives, preying on the weak and young for profit and power, and should feel the full weight of the law. They are also indirectly responsible for up to 80% of property crimes.
The solution? I’m not sure, bigger brains than mine work on these problems. I would put better education for children as a priority, a large percentage of inmates have poor reading and writing skills. This next step is one that Solomon would have trouble with, the children that are brought up by drug and alcohol addicted parents, sexually abused children and those with mental problems that aren’t being treated. What do you do there? Left in the custody of uncaring parents their futures are dim. Taken away and put into foster care is a hit and miss solution. How far does society go to intervene on behalf of the child?
THE P.O.W. I don’t remember his name, let’s call him Joe. I do however remember exactly what he looked like: tall, skinny, bright red hair, coke bottle glasses and an unlovable nasty disposition, so where did the Chief put him to work? The officer’s mess, where else. The mess, situated outside the compound was staffed by trustee prisoners under the occasional appearance of the Trade Instructor who ran the prisoner’s mess. It consisted of a head cook, breakfast cook, pastry cook, stewards, you get the picture. Joe reminded me of some latter-day pirate. He skulked around mumbling and arrggghing to himself. Casting long glances over his shoulder then staring at you myopically when he saw you coming.
We were lucky to get a ‘Hi’ out of him. What needs to be remembered here is the men who worked there could make your life one of gastronomic hell. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t mollycoddled just treated with civility. Joe’s job entailed preparing and delivering morning and afternoon tea to officers on their various posts, inside the compound. He’d come along tray in hand covered by a tea towel, whip it off and place the tray down with the little teapots, cups and plates of cake. A simple job, you’d say ‘Thanks,’ he’d grunt and walk off staring back at you over his shoulder. In my opinion Joe should’ve been in a mental institution somewhere, not in jail. Something about him didn’t click. You could see him trying to hide who he was in front of the staff. I had another steward come up to me one day, he looked around and spoke out of the corner of his mouth, ‘That Joe Mr Smith, he’s an effing nutter, talks to himself then fights with himself out the back.’ There you go a qualified diagnosis.
Saturday afternoons were for sport. The rear of the jail had been fenced off and had a soccer field, running track (they needed somewhere to train for escapes) and two tennis courts. The prison team played outside teams in the league, no away games though, and these teams were let in via the back gate. Any supporters could stay outside the fence. So: one officer manned the gate, another one, me on this day looked after the tennis courts, one officer stayed by the fence near the end of the bleachers and another manned the entry from the compound to the oval. Tennis teams also visited the jail and for the life of me I never knew why they allowed young teenage boys to play against the prisoners. The child sex offenders always seemed to take up tennis when they arrived there. I digress, Joe came out from the compound carrying his tray, double stacked so he only had to make one trip. I watched him drop off the first cuppa with the gate officer then he came to me, the back gate, bleachers and along the back of the cells to the compound entry. The shift senior had come out in the interim and Joe stood next to him, I waved at the senior and indicated Joe. He waved back and as far as I was concerned Joe had been handed over. A loud crack came from the oval, an inmate had his shin bone shattered by an opposing player’s boot, ouch. When I looked back Joe had gone, fine I thought, they’ve let him back into the compound.
Five minutes later I’m called to bring in the tennis players, we have an escapee on the run. Dutchy and myself are sent out to look for guess who? Yep Joe had made the big break for freedom. The lack of foresight and penny-pinching by government never failed to surprise me, we had to take Dutchy’s car to go and search for our errant runner. In the 70’s the Sir David Longland Centre didn’t exist, the land at that stage was overgrown bush on the site of a WW2 American army base. We drove down Grindle Road towards the river and spotted Joe, still in his white uniform jogging down through the bush parallel to the road. Dutchy pulled up and looked at me, ‘Go on you’re younger than me.’ I climbed out and crawled through the barbed wire fence, the property belonged to the prison. Joe saw me, turned and set off at a cracking pace 200 metres ahead. He’d been training on the oval, luckily I’d started an exercise regime that included deer stalking in the hills at the in-laws property. He kept ahead going uphill and we both slowed going down, the ground still hadn’t been fully cleared and was littered with foundations from the war. A cesspit here a cellar there, barbed wire entanglements hidden in long grass.
Joe, skinny thing that he was powered ahead on the flat and crossed the road and back into bushland, I had a huff ‘n puff going on, okay I was buggered. I lost him in the bush then a track appeared, you beauty he could only go two ways, I headed down towards the rail lines. Joe must have heard me coming, though he could’ve mistaken me for a train. Whatever his reasoning it didn’t matter, he stopped, pulled out the largest chef’s knife I’d ever seen and waited. Physics became involved here, something about weight, mass and propulsion anyway I couldn’t stop short. An ugly confrontation ensued, Joe had been practising with that knife.
My old Dad taught me from an early age how to fight with a knife, okay he should have passed on decent values and how to fish etc. I’m glad he chose to be different. Joe had been in a Japanese POW camp in WW2 and held the firm belief since he entered jail that he was indeed at the mercy of the Sons of Nippon. At one stage we were face to face, straining for control of the knife and I saw a horror in his eyes. I’d seen it in my Dad’s when I was younger. I knew then that he would stick that knife into me the first chance I gave him. It’s amazing what adrenalin can do. I managed to get him on the ground, arm up his back and screaming for the knife. We didn’t have handcuffs or a weapon of any sort so I took his belt and tied his wrists. Dutchy found us and we put Joe in the back seat and I sat next to him. The man fought and struggled every inch of the way. And what did Smithy get for his marathon run and nifty knife fighting skills? Charged for letting a prisoner escape, yes you heard right apparently the senior denied ever seeing Joe who climbed the fence between the cells and the tennis courts near him. I received an extra twelve months on probation and Joe went to the psychiatric jail up the hill.