It’s a daunting prospect when the steel doors clang shut behind you, and you look up to the high prison walls that separate you from freedom. Razor wire, armed guards in watchtowers, CCTV cameras watching your every move, it’s enough to make one appreciate life on the outside and the liberty we take for granted. Once inside Goulburn’s infamous maximum security prison, getting out is top of my priorities. I’m confident that any of the five hundred inmates feel the same way. Home to some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, Goulburn is a formidable prison fortress.
I came to Goulburn prison, to conduct interviews, and to research prisoner work programs for a magazine assignment. I wanted to know what role employment within the prison system had in the rehabilitation of criminals once released, and their employability within specific industries. After passing through metal detectors, body scans– thankfully no strip searches– and identity checks, I am accompanied to the workshops, deep within the prison. Visitors are issued with duress alarms before entry. If needed, the push of a button brings everyone running, but I’m not worried. A door locks securely behind me, another is unlocked ahead, and I make my way even further into the facility. I’m immediately struck by the normality of the scene when I reach the work area. It could be any of the thousands of woodworking shops I have seen over my years in the business. Except that the guy operating the router could be serving life for murder, the one on the saw dealing drugs and weapons. They’re all normal, everyday guys of course, or could be if life had led them on different paths. Prisoner Joe gives me a nod and a smile. He’s either friendly or marking me down for his girlfriend. Joking aside, everyone seems relaxed and cooperative with my questions.
Thankfully, no strip search
On the face of it, life inside seems to follow the typical pattern of working hours. I visit the furniture workshop, the textile plant and extensive kitchens. It seems bizarre that I’m standing next to prisoners carrying butcher’s knives and power tools. “It’s a trust thing,” says the prison officer. “but we account for everything before they go back to their cells.” He goes on to admit there are incidents; people do get hurt when things go awry. Work programs are partially designed to keep prisoners occupied. Goulburn’s prison Governor tells me that idle hands do the devil’s work; it’s his priority to keep everyone safe and compliant, and keeping them busy is a huge part of that task, though he acknowledges the importance of preparing prisoners for life on the outside. Prisoners will push the limits and try to get away with as much as they can. Contraband is a big problem, and inmates are subjected to random strip searches on a regular basis. Cells are searched routinely, but still, the illegal items find their way inside. Phones and drugs are high on the wanted list, and they will find any means to brew alcohol. “They’re quite ingenious,” the guard tells me.
It’s a trust thing
Prisoners share small cells. My guide says they try for two to a cell, but growing numbers mean three is not uncommon. Self-harm is another risk that officers have to deal with. Cells are moulded with no hanging points, “but where there’s a will there’s a way,” he says. Clothes are tear proof, and there are no belts or shoelaces, but the guard goes on to describe how a prisoner used his underpants to kill himself. “They all have to wear paper undies now,” he tells me, a little too casually.
I’m told by those in charge, that socio-economic conditions are by far the most significant factor when it comes to why people offend, and why they inevitably return to prison. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that fact. Many of the inmates I saw have never had a job. They come from broken homes and families; their parents never had jobs. Often abused as children, they learn to follow in the same steps and become clones of their parents. They turn to crime because it offers the easiest path. Work and training programs while inside are essential opportunities for prisoners to learn an alternative way, and can help turn lives around. Finding employment is vital if those freed are to contribute and integrate back into society, without returning to crime.
There are no easy answers when it comes to reducing prisoner numbers and addressing the causes behind their incarceration. I look back on my life and feel lucky to have had parents with values, values that prevailed during those crossroad moments when life could have taken me down a very different road. I stand within the prison walls and wonder if that could be me over there, with the ponytail and the gang tattoos serving life? If I’d had the same upbringing as him, quite possibly. “I came from a large, low-income family, but that didn’t make me turn to crime.” It’s a line we’ve all used at some time or other, and it definitely applies to me, but then again, I was never abused as a child; I didn’t have parents who stole or committed acts of violence. They weren’t drunks and didn’t hang out with drug addicts and violent criminals. I had an education, unlike many who are left to roam the streets looking for mischief, those first steps to a life of crime. I had prospects of work, they have almost none. I’m not excusing anyone for their sins; I’m just stating the facts.
Goulburn supermax prison holds Australia’s very worst offenders. Men like serial killer, Ivan Milat, mass murderer Malcolm Baker; there are convicted terrorist and gang leaders: there’s no hope of rehabilitating people like these and I’m not sure we want to. For some, the term, lock-em-up and throw away the key, seems appropriate. But with prison populations growing, we do need to find solutions that stop released prisoners reoffending and even better, from offending in the first case. Learning work skills and the disciplines of daily work is a small step in the right direction, but it’s akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to concentrate our efforts on children who are vulnerable to bad influences. We need measures to identify those at risk and catch them before they take the wrong path. Easier said than done, I know, and it takes money and resources.
It’s with some relief that I gain my release. My belongings, phone, wallet, keys, belt, are returned, and I step through the doors to freedom, I hear the clang of steel behind me, and I’m kind of glad I managed to keep my life on the straight and narrow, and grateful for parents who cared. It’s a reminder that life is pretty good on the outside, and once again, the love of a family is everything.
Life is pretty good on the outside