Prison guard: 'You activists get what you deserve'

May 4, 2007

A month in Darwin's Berrimah jail, from March 12 to April 8, sheeted home several truths about democratic rights to former journalist Rob Inder-Smith.

The sight of the exit gate to freedom came as my head was giddy with mixed emotions. The triumph of a plan unhatched and about to be fulfilled swirled with the rage just conjured up by Officer Move Out!, who could not let me pass through "checkpoint Charlie" without one final act of bastardry.

Here I was, a 28-day political prisoner, about to turn my back on his workstation, Berrimah Correctional Centre, and he had just confiscated more of my papers.

"I'm keeping these", he said as he clutched a fist-full of documents I immediately recognised. Included were shopping and to-do lists for this very day, plus letters already processed and vetted by Officer Ten Gallon, the prison censor. They'd accompanied me safely from the "mainstream" M-block to my one-man B-block bunker, aka solitary, where I spent my second fortnight, so why was Move Out! taking them from me now?

We both knew that this final confiscation was unjustifiable and I was livid.

At the same time, I was almost jubilant with relief at seeing that what was not in his grubby outstretched hand were my unravelled shorthand notes — the ones I was attempting to smuggle out and that seemed at this late stage, just seconds after my sixth and final strip-search, to be as yet undiscovered and on their way with me out the gate.

Move Out! and his band of uniformed, rubber glove-wearing screws — aka prison officers, but something entirely different in prisoner parlance — were demonstrating that even as a prisoner is all but free, it is they who are ultimately unaccountable.

"You can't do this!", I said, outraged yet thankful my booty seemed to have slipped through under their noses. Just to be sure, I dug into the plastic bag just handed back to me. My relief instantly became joy — the object containing my precious notes was safe and sound.

Then, with one last, albeit not entirely full-blooded, protestation, "That's my intellectual property", Berrimah's henchmen frogmarched me to my freedom.

Getting the notes out had been a case of second-time lucky. Soon after my arrival, while still in an M-block dormitory cell, I had tried to smuggle out letters and news stories with a prisoner due for release in a few days, Stuart Highway, who happened to be a neighbour of a mate, and is one of Australia's best-known political and human rights activists.

Also included in the soon-to-be-deemed contraband was a letter from Annum, an Indonesian fisherman, who saw our "arrangement" as a last resort. Over the previous 12 months, he had written at least three times to Highway, with all his letters returned by screws who told him, "You cannot write to this person because he is a political activist and trouble-maker". He was also told he was not allowed to telephone Highway, so when he got wind of the arrangement he leapt at the idea.

But screws frisked Parny, and our letters — sealed in envelopes addressed to the ombudsman, which should have rendered them untouchable — were opened and never made it outside the prison walls. As punishment for our audacity, Annum and I ended up in "Sepcon" — separate confinement.

Perhaps the most ominous parting shot was delivered by the screw escorting me out the gate. "You activists get what you deserve", he said. Coming from a man I never even knew, the words left me dumbstruck. And I realise that they were not meant just for me.

[The author was convicted of intentionally disrupting the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly while it was in session in February 2002.]

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