The first thing that happens to you as a prisoner is tea.
I’m escorted down to the holding cells by two police. I’m fairly sure, for me at least, they were there to make sure I didn’t faint, rather than making sure I caused no trouble. I’m put into a cell with perspex walls. A kind-faced lady, one of the officers, asks if I know where I am. When I answer that I do, she hands me a cup of hot, very milky tea. Warming me up and restoring my blood sugar levels, it has what I suspect is the intended effect.
In this clear-walled cell for about an hour, I mostly sleep, and only found out later that it is an observation unit. All prisoners spend time here so the officers can make sure you don’t hurt yourself from the shock. It is also where the prison system decides if you are innocent or guilty. The innocent are the ones in danger; they pace, cry, rant and negotiate things like phone calls. The guilty sleep…
At some point I’m nudged awake by a female officer and moved into yet another cell to, well, wait again. I’m waiting because they don’t bring new inmates to Melbourne Assessment Prison (MAP) until after lockdown, which is half past four in the afternoon, but at the time I don’t know that. Sitting in that cell I have no idea what the time is, or how long I have been sitting on concrete benches, waiting.
This new cell is much bigger, and during the day two other prisoners are brought in. They are both in their early twenties. One is in for ‘ag burg’, or aggravated burglary, which is robbing a home when someone is home, and the other for unpaid fines.
They are the first crims I’ve ever spoken to, and they shatter my assumption that you don’t ask what someone is in for, and you don’t talk about what you’re in for. Instead, it’s just about the first thing people ask, and the first piece of information inmates volunteer. It’s all you talk about with some people, and it’s the one thing you all have in common: you both committed a crime.
So I tell these guys fraud, and they want to know who from. When I say it was one of Australia’s largest financial institutions, their attitude is, ‘Good on you,’ and, ‘Fuck ‘em, victimless crime.’
There I am, licking my wounds and wondering how I got from there to here, and these young men are impressed at my brazenness and choice of victim. Mr Ag Burg’s main concern is how he can make sure he ends up at the same jail as his brother, who is in Castlemaine doing time for a hit and run. He wants to go and work industry with him, which would mean their mum only has to visit one jail.
The other lad doesn’t care. He’s in for four months, and when he gets out, he won’t owe the fines anymore. It’s a much easier way to pay fines, he said. It’s ‘just jail’. I marvel at their indifference to their current situation. I have no idea how to respond to their nonchalance, and so our conversation dwindles off.
When lunch is offered, we eat in silence. Without ever discussing it, we agree that when one of us gets up to use the full exposed, lidless, stainless-steel toilet that is bolted to one wall, the other two will turn their backs. Perhaps it’s the intermittently offered tea, perhaps it is the food, or it could be the five and a half hours we are locked in that cell, but in time we all take our turn.
Once we are moved to the MAP, I’m put in line after line, cell after cell. It feels like a very long time, but in truth, it is only around an hour. I move through four cells, each filled with men whose faces range in expression from resignation to terror. I’m feeling a lot closer to terror, but I try and keep my face as neutral as possible. Mind you, the constant tapping of my foot might be giving me away.
Every officer, doctor and contract worker I speak to, and there are nine in all, want me to answer the same questions: ‘Do you know where you are?’, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ and ‘Have you had any thoughts of self-harm?’
By about the fourth interview, the questions just feel like a process, and I’m not convinced anyone actually cares about my state of mind or my risk of self-harm. I do, however, suspect they care a great deal about the additional paperwork that would be generated if I answered their questions incorrectly. This feeling is compounded when it is my turn to see the doctor. In addition to the normal barrage of questions, the doctor adds, ‘Are you taking any medications?’