I had occasion to be able to visit a new prison recently and it was something of an eye opener. The security is state of the art, on par with any modern jail. Visitors are fingerprinted and photographed, there are still the airport style searches of your person and belongings and drug detection wands. The buildings may be called accommodation and isolation sections, at the end of the day they are still cells. The cinder block look is reminiscent of any other medieval structure, with some modernist approaches in the areas of gymnasiums and recreation centres. The prisoners haven’t changed. On a tour of the education centre I noticed the same looks, felt the old tensions and emotions coming from them. They checked me out too; perhaps they felt a sense of knowing coming from my direction, or a self-assuredness uncommon in normal civilian visitors as I eyed them, checking their body language and movements, setting myself in dominant positions wherever I stood.
When I talked to them and not down to them they stared harder, “Who’s this bloke?” the question hung there. I spoke with some of them about their hobbies and the overwhelming feeling came to me, absolutely nothing has changed over the years. After speaking with an officer I learned that the majority of prisoners still avoided work, education, help and therapy. I could pick out the heavies and standover men and spot all the little hidey holes around the place. No matter how much you wash it, blow dry it and dress it in a suit, a Gorilla is still a Gorilla.
It didn’t fill me with any sense of wonder or amazement; those working there now have no concept of how jails used to be run. In retrospect I think it makes little difference. It isn’t the building, be it a hollowed out tree, a 44 gallon drum or a granite castle in some far off alpine area. It’s the people and people are resilient, hard-headed and resistant to change. Those going into jail are not happy campers and as we have discussed in earlier blogs, for many it is a way of life. Some, because of addictions to drugs, alcohol and antisocial sexual behaviour will never change until the addiction is dealt with. The carrot and stick approach only works until they get out, then with the threat of loss of remissions and privileges not hanging over them they easily re-offend.
Bigger brains than mine have given thought to the tangled web which is crime and punishment. As we’ve seen, new buildings and politically correct speech doesn’t change attitudes. Horrendous conditions and physical punishment changes attitudes, for the worse. Breaking the human spirit, besides flying in the face of humanity is cruel and beyond the pale. I’d like to share an event I witnessed in Viet Nam when I served there in 1971. Our armoured section was tasked with patrolling an area north of Nui Dat, our main base. Through the day we would work our way through the bush until late afternoon, split up and half would stay out and the other half would spend the night in a US controlled encampment at Ap Suoi Ngai. There were local force soldiers there and a few American servicemen. The bliss of spending the night there involved a hot shower and a cold beer at the small club the Americans had.
I decided to go for a wander and around the back of the club I noticed a small cage. This cage would have held a big dog at a push and seeing something dark crammed in there I went for a look. A human being crouched inside of it, no room to stand, sit properly or lay down. It was a Viet Cong POW. I don’t know how long he’d been there, nobody would say, other than, “He’s a Goddamn Gook.” Yes he was indeed an enemy combatant, and I might add an extremely pissed off one. There was however something about his eyes, a fierce determination that said, “If I could get out of here I’d chew your throat out.” No matter who or what he was the man had a mindset that wouldn’t change. I imagine he would only be more determined to stay the same. This brings me to a true story I read in the early eighties, about two South Vietnamese army officers in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon. They were both kept together in a 44 gallon drum for a year, only allowed out to defecate. The drum sat in the middle of a parade ground with the lid kept on. I couldn’t begin to imagine how torturous that would be, the only upside, they had each other’s company. They survived relatively mentally intact, were they re-educated? Did they follow the doctrines of the new regime? I could only imagine the least they would do was to pay lip service to it.
This brings us back to the question, do the majority of inmates actually rehabilitate or do they pay lip service to the system to get out earlier. The rate of recidivism, those who re-offend and return to jail is about 75%, which tells us that something isn’t working. The system itself has been analysed, turned upside down and had a cavity search. This leaves the other side of the equation, the offender/society. You can’t separate one from the other; an offender can be anyone, a relative, friend, wife, husband, and child. Jail can be an easy enough of a place to get into, even without having a criminal nature or background and a small percentage of offenders are one time crims.
The childhood home is where criminals are made, not the streets and the gangs, they are places the child is drawn to when they aren’t nurtured. Naturally there are exceptions to the rule, criminals coming from good homes where there is love and attention, and exceptional people come from homes where criminality is rife. Through my time in the prison system and the police I have seen the children who became criminals and the homes they came from: no love, abuse in all forms-mental, physical and sexual, lack of education and inspiration, no moral compass, parents not holding down jobs, or on generational welfare and poorly educated, no respect for themselves, addicted to drugs and alcohol – the list goes on. Keep these children mired in this existence where they know nothing better and they are destined for the same life as their parents.
Hope is a small word with a big meaning, without it there is no reason to go on. Put aside for a moment the thought of a Deity or an omnipotent being coming into the equation and immerse yourself in the life of this six-year-old child. Let’s call him David, he’s in a state of awareness having an idea of what goes on in his home. He’s had six years to soak up the yelling and screaming from his parents, (he’s lucky both are still together) he’s witnessed his mother being beaten over twenty times, heard the derogatory words between his parents. Most of the words involve a sexual slant, i.e. she’s a slut, useless, good for one thing only. She retaliates and screams about lack of money etc. His father has belittled him constantly and because he has become his mother’s shield, he’s probably been beaten at least a dozen times, for no good reason. His mother drinks openly and leaves half empty bottles of wine lying around, David likes the sweet taste. He soaks up their ideologies and thoughts on society, police, government, work, money or the lack thereof.
Parties are a frequent event, mainly on weekends. They involve alcohol and drug abuse and if David is lucky he might avoid the clutches of the occasional paedophile that will be in the mix, not so his younger sister who is being abused by the father. As time goes on he will notice the influx of goods and money at odd times and realise that father is a thief, not a good one because he now goes along to jail on weekends with his mother. Naturally their relations and friends are of the same mind-set, so David falls in with children from a similar background. Due to a lack of early nurturing and proper care David finds life at school boring. When he attends he’s disruptive, then he is labelled. Life goes on and he finds it easy to follow in his father’s footsteps. By twenty he’s already been to jail twice, has two children by different girlfriends and when he gets out this time is more than likely heading for another stint inside within the year. I knew David and followed his life from when he first visited his father in jail, until I arrested him for assault when he turned seventeen. He didn’t stand a chance because he had no HOPE.
By no means am I labelling underprivileged people here, I mentioned earlier there are exceptions. Children from ‘good’ homes who turn to criminality usually fall into the upper echelons of crime: fraud, passing bad cheques, major drug supplying, high-end thefts. As to murder, there are no social boundaries; anyone from any background can commit that crime. This brings us to nature and even bigger brains strain at this one. Can a person be born bad? Bad in the sense that human life means nothing to them, bad in a way that from an early age and a ‘normal’ home they exhibit signs of extreme cruelty. I know that a lot of children go through a stage of cruelty, stomping on bugs and ants, pulling wings off flies etc. It is when they start torturing and killing small animals that something is definitely wrong. I’ve spoken to the parents of young prisoners who were in for rape and murder, and they were good people. Yet their child, who once lay in a cot and gurgled and gooed now sat in a cell for a heinous crime. What happened in between when they had love, nurture, education the best of everything? I’ve had this argument over the years and many people don’t like the nature aspect of it, yet ordinary everyday people go SNAP, without the benefit of a tortuous upbringing.
In next week’s instalment I finish at old Wacol jail, that is where my Policeman’s Lot series starts. For now I’ll skip the intervening years, 1988-1999 and we’ll find ourselves back in a totally different correctional facility. With a bevy of strange, funny and downright rude stories, I die for a short while here and come face to face with my mortality a second time. The experience changes my life completely, so tune in next week, same Bat time same Bat channel.