Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hell's just across the street

Whenever the Tour de France runs into cold rain, icy winds, fog or sleet, you can be sure that a French cycling commentator, to describe the weather conditions, is going to drag out one of their favorite adjectives: dantesque, meaning "atrocious". The first time I heard this highfalutin epithet, I found it funny, because Dante Alighieri [1265-1321] was renowned for his vision of Hell, which we don't usually imagine as a cold damp place. Dante's literary Hell is in fact a terribly complex environment, with a little bit of everything in the way of horrible tribulations... including slippery slopes covered in wet mud.

In his play entitled No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the famous but misunderstood claim: "Hell is other people." He wasn't saying that other people drive us crazy, and that everything would be so much nicer on Earth if we were all alone. Sartre was merely making a two-step observation:

1. An individual constructs a representation of himself by "digesting" what other people seem to be saying and thinking about him. We tend to see ourselves in the "mirror" provided by the attitudes towards us of other people: friends, enemies, etc.

2. When the global assessment provided by these reflections from other people seems to be a real mess [I'm paraphrasing Sartre in crude terms], then it's as if these outside commentators have thrown us into a personal Hell. On the other hand, it might happen that other people are not formulating all that many bad ideas about you. What's more, you might not give a fuck about what other people are saying about you, be it negative or positive. In either of these two happy cases, Hell ceases to exist for you. As Sartre puts it, such fortunate folk are "condemned to be free".

I have the impression that the existentialist Sartre and the zoologist Richard Dawkins are saying much the same thing. God does not exist, so there is no divine plan for the essence of human beings. We might indeed be struck down by lightning, just as we might become the object of "evil vibrations" from other people who desire to impose Hell upon us. But our existentialist freedom to be what we wish to be remains untarnished. We are never obliged to assume a role of victims, neither of brutal Nature nor of Others.

Let's change the background. My birthplace, Grafton, Australia: a sleepy country town (locals like to call it a city) that's proud of its jacaranda trees and its aging bridge across the Clarence River. Let's nudge the background a little bit more, to talk of jails. Before Australia became a nation, it was a vast prison. In my July 2007 article History of my birthplace [display], I mentioned the excellent historical work by Robert Hughes entitled The Fatal Shore, which depicts starkly the terrible penal system that the British installed in the Antipodes. For many decades, Australia's early history was dominated by the abominable treatment of convicts and the continent's indigenous people. Later, the two strands of horror would flow together, in the sense that the majority of inmates in many Australian jails were Aborigines. [This was the case in Fremantle, for example, where I resided in the shadow of their jail in 1986-1987.]

The quiet town of Grafton erected an ominous jail back in 1893... even before they got around to building a town hall and council chambers.

The fortress is still there, inside the city, just across the street from the local hospital... where my brother was treated for a trauma after a horse accident in the 1950s, where my father died in 1978.

This jail in the heart of my birthplace has always been a striking example of an elephant in the living room. Graftonians were all aware that the jail existed, but nobody ever spoke about it. Visiting the hospital, we would make an effort to avoid looking across at the scene on the other side of the street, where the more docile inmates were working in potato fields, behind barbed-wire fences, with rifle-pointing guards observing events from corner towers. Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of situation. Many great cities such as Paris and Marseille have giant prisons in their midst. This is no more shocking (indeed less so, in my opinion) than the countless Breton towns centered around cemeteries, as if the ideal motivation for building a dynamic society consisted of reminding citizens constantly that they were mortal. The only difference is that a cemetery concerns the dead, who no longer care about how they're being treated, whereas a jail inside a social entity such as a city concerns living human beings, whose treatment should remain the object of our vigilant attention. Unfortunately, at Grafton, we knew nothing about what might be happening inside the walls, and we cared even less, for this phenomenon failed to disturb our anesthetized and antiseptic sense of the distinction between what might be humanly acceptable or unacceptable in the outside world. Stupendous error: the "outside world" of tortured inmates happened to lie just across the street.

Meanwhile, I attended Latin classes with Tom Mogan, whose father was the governor of Grafton Jail. Tom was a devout Catholic, and I imagined vaguely that this might have something to do with his desire to learn Latin. After school hours, Tom never invited any of us to his home in Hoof Street: the governor's residence. So we knew nothing about our mate Tom... who went on to become a priest, working with Aborigines in Western Australian, before his premature death.

I attach, with no comments, a public document concerning the period during which I was a high school student in Grafton and the father of my mate Tom was governor of Grafton Jail:

Australian studies in law, crime and justice
The abuse of prisoners in New South Wales 1943-76

Published in:
Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector
P N Grabosky
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1989 ISBN 0 642 14605 5
(Australian studies in law, crime and justice series); pp. 27-46

The punishment of convicted criminals is an issue which has indelibly marked the two hundred-year-old history of European settlement in New South Wales. Indeed, a central purpose of the original colonisation in 1788 was to relieve overcrowded conditions in British prisons. For its first thirty years, the colony of New South Wales was little more than a military prison.

Although the severity with which the convicts were punished for various breaches of penal discipline defies precise analysis, such limited statistics as do exist depict a regime of grim brutality. Over 42,000 floggings (with an average of more than 40 lashes per flogging) and 240 executions by hanging were officially recorded for the period 1830-37 (Historical Records of Australia, vol. 1, no. 19, p. 654).

A century later, penal methods had evolved substantially - at least in theory. The beating of prisoners was proscribed by law. But well into the second half of the twentieth century, many ugly vestiges of British colonisation were still recognisable in the prisons of New South Wales.

Grafton

During World War II, increasing tensions in the state's prisons, and a number of serious assaults on prison officers, led the then NSW Prisons Department to use Grafton Gaol to house the state's most intractable prisoners. The penal methods implemented there over the following thirty-three year period were described by a Royal Commissioner as a 'regime of terror', '... brutal, savage and sometimes sadistic'. The Commissioner referred to the period in question as 'one of the most sordid and shameful episodes in NSW penal history' (New South Wales 1978, p. 108).

He concluded:

It is the view of the Commission that every prison officer who served at Grafton during the time it was used as a gaol for intractables must have known of its brutal regime. The majority of them, if not all, would have taken part in the illegal assaults on prisoners (New South Wales 1978, P. 119).

The practices in question consisted of the systematic beating of prisoners upon their arrival at Grafton, euphemistically termed a 'reception biff, and further physical assaults in the event of breaches of gaol rules during their subsequent incarceration there. In other instances, beatings were administered on a more or less random basis. In most cases, the assaults took place without violence or provocation by prisoners (Zdenkowski & Brown 1982, pp. 181-2 and 240-1).

Prisoners arrived at Grafton customarily attired in overalls and slippers, their arms strapped to their sides by a security belt to which their wrists were handcuffed. In the words of Mr Justice Nagle:

In some instances, the beatings began even before the security belt and handcuffs were removed. The beatings were usually administered by three or four officers wielding rubber batons. The prisoner was taken into a yard, ordered to strip, searched, and then the biff began. The word biff by no means describes the brutal beating which ensued. A former prison officer, Mr J.J. Pettit, described it: ,sometimes three, four or five of them would assault the prisoner with their batons to a condition of semi-consciousness. On occasions the prisoner urinates, and his nervous system ceases to function normally'. If most of the prisoners are to be believed, the officers had no compunction about beating them around their backs and heads; nor were they averse to kicking them when they were on the ground. They invariably abused them while they were hitting them, calling them 'bastards', 'cunts' and other abusive names. Sometimes they threatened to kill them (New South Wales 1978, P. 110).

The Royal Commissioner went on to quote a former Grafton prisoner, a local resident who had served a short term for failing to meet maintenance payments, and who was thereby spared violent treatment:

Later one afternoon ... I heard a commotion coming from an adjacent cell underneath in the 'trac' section. I could hear a lot of screaming and shouting and also the sound of thuds hitting against something. It went on for at least three minutes, I then heard the sound of a cell door slamming. The intense screaming then continued and its direction appeared to be moving. I then heard the same screaming coming from the yard. It lasted for some time further, and finally disappeared. The next morning at about 7.00 am I and other prisoners went into that yard. I saw what appeared to be pools of blood of considerable quantity on the concrete as well as on the path leading to the wood-heap.

He described the second incident in the following manner.

One afternoon ... I was marching through a walkover near a small yard, and looking towards the pound. I saw officer Wenczel and a prisoner, who was against a wall. Mr Wenczel was flogging him with his baton across his back and shoulders. I saw five to six blows, and the prisoner turned and was struck heavily across the head. Blood spurted from his forehead which was split. He fell on to the ground. The prisoner had his shirt off and blood was appearing on his body. I walked away from the scene (quoted in New South Wales 1978, p. 115).

It was clear, moreover, that the beatings in question were in furtherance of departmental policy; prison officers who testified before the Royal Commission conceded as much (Findlay 1982, p. 46). Departmental correspondence referred to the desirability of 'robust officers' to staff the institution, and for thirty-three years prison officers at Grafton were paid a 'climatic allowance' (New South Wales 1978, p. 108) - certainly an ironic euphemism, as the climate in the Grafton area is arguably the most equable in Australia.

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