Locked up

Andy Mason writes about his time in a rural prison.

leard state forest

I’m handcuffed and put into the back of the paddy wagon. It’s filthy and there is a large dried bloodstain on the floor. The handcuffs are tight, but I remember a friend’s story about them being so tight they cut into his wrists and I realise it’s not so bad.

There is no seatbelt and the drive into town, along gravel roads, is extremely bumpy. I’m very thirsty, but am told I can’t have water until we get there. The air conditioning is on and it makes the paddy even colder than the chilly winter day. Its real purpose is to drown out sound – I can’t hear the cops talking in the front, and they can’t hear me.

Maules Creek, in northwestern NSW, is the site of a controversial mine project. If the construction is completed, an irreplaceable biodiversity hotspot and threatened species refuge, the Leard State Forest, will be lost. Local farmers will lose their livelihoods, the local community will be exposed to dangerous dust and water pollution and the local Indigenous people, the Gomeroi, will lose the heritage and culture embodied in the area’s sacred sites.

I was arrested there earlier this year for my involvement with the blockade that’s been fighting the mine for two years. This is the story of my arrest and experience of the prison system.

***

We arrive at the station and I’m processed. I know the drill, having done this before, and this gives my manner a curt formality that elicits a good deal of hostility from the cops. It’s an hour before I’m given my property docket, another two before the charge sheet.

I’m asked what I do when not protesting coal mines and I say I’m studying science in Sydney. They ask what I want to do afterwards and I say I’m in the process of working it out. This is ridiculous, apparently – do I plan to spend my whole life at school? I should get a real job – the cop’s kids would get an earful, or worse, if they were fucking around like me.

I’m told the campaign is going to fail and the mine will be built. I smile and shake my head. I’m told I won’t be able to work for the government anymore and may have difficulty in other jobs, and it will be hard for me to travel overseas, now that I have a criminal record. I smile and nod.

Then it’s back in the paddy and an hour to Moree. When I get there I’m asked a whole bunch of questions. Mostly they’re interested in whether I’m going to hurt myself while I’m there. I say no. Good, they say, lots of blokes try it because they think it’ll get them special treatment, and I should get that idea out of my head right now, because it means that everything but my underwear will be taken and I’ll be watched all the time.

Do I have any fears about being in jail? Yes – I’m a small, bookish, queer greenie from the city in a rural prison – wouldn’t you be scared? Yep, if the warden were in my position, he’d be terrified. I’m told I can either go to a cell up the front in the communal bit, where I will “get smashed”, or I can opt for a cell on my own. The second one, please.

Then I am strip-searched, becoming instantly as well acquainted with the warden as I’ve been with any lover. As I’m taken to my cell, I see a man. He is very thin and asks “who’s that?”. He repeats the question over and over again. “Nobody you know, Reuben. Nobody you know,” the cop replies.

It’s impossible for me to talk to Reuben once inside my cell, but I hear his repetitive yells.  His behaviour reminds me of a cousin with a developmental disorder. I assume something similar affects him and wonder why he is here, and not in care somewhere.

***

My experience in prison catalysed much reflection about the society I live in. Firstly there are my thoughts about institutional privilege; something, which I learned, follows me as a white middle-class person even into such a dim corner of life as jail. The air-con was on in my paddy, while Indigenous people often die in rural Australia in the backs of police cars, denied air-con in a metal box in the summer heat.

If I was hurt or died in prison, it would probably make the news and an inquiry would lead to somebody losing their job. Meanwhile, the search for justice over the death of TJ Hickey at police hands remains fruitless after ten years. Imprisonment creates a condition in which even the smallest displays of kindness have stuck in my memory, and though the experience was far from pleasant, my skin crawls to think of what it would have been like had these special privileges not been afforded to me.

Then there is the fact that my arrest was a matter of choice, a consequence of something that I undertook willingly for political reasons. While I stand by my motivation and my actions, there is clearly something that differentiates what I did from Reuben’s “crimes”. We never spoke about it, but in his eyes and in his screams I understood everything I need to. This man has no social support network, no job, maybe not even the dole. He has difficulty communicating with other people, especially if they intimidate him – he missed out on breakfast because he could not answer the warden’s question of whether or not he would like it.

Reuben needs care, support and understanding – not to be talked harshly down to like a child by people wearing police uniform.

***

There’s a camera in a corner of the room, and, again I notice bloodstains on the floor. I organise the bed properly – there’s a raised concrete platform with a foam mattress on it, and three blankets. I use one as a pillow and get comfortable under the other two. It’s cold, but I’ve slept in worse, and start to daydream about speaking in front of the judge tomorrow. I will demand that he side with me, with the community and forest about to be destroyed by this senseless mine, to take the side of humanity rather than the side of capital. I have done harm to nothing but a profit margin and punishing me is unjustifiable – Big Coal are the real villains, your honour. Even I don’t buy this and soon I am asleep.

Breakfast is two slices of toast with packets of butter and jam; some rice bubbles and a packet of milk; also coffee. I gulp it all down before being put in handcuffs and led to the shower. Showering in handcuffs is a challenge, but warm water feels fantastic. I don’t want to be indulgent and I come out after five minutes or so. The warden seems surprised that I was so quick – I realise afterwards that the showers are usually a little long, as they’re the only alone time inmates have away from the CCTV.

When I come out, Reuben is there, and I say “G’day Reuben, I’m Andy.”

“Hello Andy, what did you do?”

“I climbed up a drill rig to try and stop a coal mine, Reuben, what did you do?”

“I stole food from Woolies, Andy, and now I’ll be here for two weeks.”

“Chat’s over boys,” another voice says.  I’m led to the visitors’ room for a meeting with the solicitor – he says court starts at 9:30 am and that I should be out today.

***

In the cell the TV is on and 90 minutes of infomercials numbs my mind. The TV goes off suddenly and things start to stretch out and blend together. With no clock and no ad breaks, I have absolutely no idea how long I’ve been sitting there. The constant tension of expectation is unbearable – surely it must be 9:30 by now? I stretch. I walk the five paces between the back wall and the door. I feel utterly powerless and ignored, acknowledged only by a number and the room I’m sitting in.

I imagine what it must be like in a detention centre, with this uncertainty being an ever-present feature of life, as days became months or years. I feel I can better understand the parts of Amnesty and Human Rights Commission reports I have read which say that efforts to improve the mental health of detainees always fail because they leave the underlying cause of their misery, the very fact of their ambiguous condition in prison, unsolved. I’m horrified by the realisation of how grateful I am to be sitting in this cell, and not in one on Manus.

***

The most challenging part of those 26 hours was the sense of isolation and uncertainty. After the communality of life at the blockade it was extremely confronting to be so severely atomised. Everything was about me – MY belongings were indexed, MY details were noted down, MY fingerprints taken, I was told only about how MY actions reflected on ME and would lead to consequences for MY future. At the same time, I was totally removed from my context – it was of no real interest why I was there or who I was, that I had any identity outside of the items listed on my property docket and a list of the pieces of legislation I had broken. I was reduced totally to my little self, and then even this melted away.

At some moments in the cell I had no thoughts at all except a reiteration of some instruction that I had been given – at these times I had no identity apart from the prescriptions placed on me by the punitive wing of the neoliberal state. It told me what to eat, put some consumerist scare-propaganda on my TV, told me when to shower and sleep. I’m astonished that people have endured years in solitary; after my tiny glimpse of that life, I never want to experience it.

The truth is that those in power delineate the bounds of what is and is not acceptable political engagement.  Similar protests would cripple the coal industry if allowed to happen on any significant scale – the recent victory at Bentley shows this. The awesome power of the police and prison system is used to demoralise anybody who is unsatisfied with merely taking their outrage at the state of things to the ballot box in three years’ time. If parliamentary politics were any real threat to coal mining, it would have been abolished long ago.  Rallies and petitions are not going to change anything on their own. Direct action is a clear alternative. Even when it fails to prevent injustice, it necessarily expands the horizons of the public debate and can encourage laypeople to see that their voices and actions have real power.

***

Finally, I’m handcuffed again before being taken to the court. I’m told it’s 1:30 pm and this is the last session before lunch. I don’t get to say goodbye to Reuben, but I walk past a cell with a middle-aged bikie in it, who tells me I look “delicious” – lucky we were in different cells.

In the courtroom proceedings seem to be almost finished, having largely proceeded without me. No heroic Castro-esque speech then; a shame. I’m given bail conditions – I must return to the bail address in Sydney straight away and not come within 50 km of the mine site. Judge says if I break this, I’ll be in jail for a week. I nod and it’s over. I go back to the cell, and then I’m given my things and led outside. A few friends are there and I give them all long hugs before we drive back to Narrabri, where I leave them to continue the 520 km drive home alone.

***

There is an urgent imperative for drastic action to push the world towards a sane, humane, ecologically mindful future. Putting my body between the machine and the irreplaceable forest was one way to contribute.  It’s important to note that I made this decision as white and middle-class – I expected procedural fairness, even-handed treatment by the police, to be safe and fed – and that my reasoning here is probably only applicable to people like me. My Indigenous activist friends are right to be more hesitant.

As a person with PTSD I was very reluctant to expose myself to new trauma, but after being gently explained the procedures of arrest and trial, the best way to deal with police, and the value of the proposed action, I felt I was able to do it. The network of support I had around me was integral to my decision.

I don’t wish to pressure folks into doing something like what I have done. It takes careful consideration, preparation and time. I do want to dispel some of the apprehension around this kind of thing, and to encourage people to convert their feelings into action. Serious action has serious consequences, but if I got through it, I reckon you can too.

Photograph: Sam J. Queen