29 August 2011

Crims & Screws

Conflict is often at the heart of the Boggo Road story, but were inmates and officers really so antagonistic?
Another battle of wits between MacKay, Fletcher and Godber.
in the classic sitcom Porridge.
first got involved at Boggo Road about ten years ago, not through some interest in prisons but rather through a desire to work in a museum. I had never actually stepped foot in a prison before. Although a few family members and old schoolmates have been inside prison, I never gave the places too much thought, so I went into the field with very little idea about the overall relationship between officers and prisoners. I had assumed (again, without giving it any thought) that they lined up on opposite sides of the fence, one side trying to control, the other side trying not to be controlled, with the inevitable conflict in between making Boggo Road so infamous.

These notions were probably influenced by the usual suspects; too many movies and bad journalism. Dramatic stories of the goings-on at Boggo Road were in the Courier-Mail all the time in the late '80s/early '90s, providing regular fodder for cartoonists like Sean Leahy. The officers he drew looked like big, square-headed, broken-nosed, brutish thugs, which is also how he tended to portray the prisoners. They were basically two gangs of Neanderthals at war with each other. I soon found that the reality was, as usual, much more subtle and complex, as prison officers and prisoners are a very eclectic mix of individual personalities, much like any other large groups of people in society.

Until 2004 the Boggo Road Gaol Museum was run by a small group of former officers and a few other volunteers. They would tell tour groups the story of the prison from their own perspective, but even among these few tour guides there were quite large differences in attitudes and opinions. I soon worked out that this was quite normal, and it was very difficult to get two officers to give the same version of events about anything that happened in Boggo Road. While this can be interesting for a historian trying to gather information, it can also be a headache at times.

One area that was instantly noticeable was attitudes about prisoners. Some officers were all-too-ready to throw around negative generalisations, while others knew there were good eggs and bad eggs among all groups in the prison. After all, officers and inmates saw each other most days of the week, and in some cases a somewhat friendly relationship would develop over time. Sometimes not. As one former officer told me, he saw the prisoners as 'fingerprints', no two the same, and the key was to know what kind of approach he should take with each person. Everyone thrown into this potentially-volatile mix had their own personality and they had their own individual relationship with everyone else in there.

An eye-opener for me was the former inmates who occasionally visited the museum. When I was researching the book 'Escaping Boggo Road' I read up on the 1973 escape of Trevor Bateman and Ronald Russell. They seemed like archetypal bad guys, one a murderer, one an armed robber, and both of them jail-breakers. A a few years 'Bluey' Russell himself popped into the museum for a chat with John Banks, the 'hard-but-fair' museum manager and former officer, and apparently they got along just fine talking about the old days.

Another happy museum visitor was Nathan Jones, former armed robber and prisoner who tried his hand at pro-wrestling in the USA as the 'Colossus of Boggo Road', and has also made a number of movies. Jones was a notoriously difficult prisoner, a 7-foot 1-inch man prone to the kind of angry outbursts in which he once bent back a thick metal cell door. Again, here was a former 'enemy of society' who left prison a very different man. People change.

Chatting to former prisoners about the prison and the officers is also very revealing. Quite often they express their respect for individuals within the system, not everyone, but certainly some. Indeed, one of the items in the Queensland Prisons Collection is a 'sorry you're leaving card' given by prisoners to the late Don Walters, another former officer and museum manager, when he retired. The prisoners thanked Don, a couple calling him a 'humanitarian', and some of these people turned up to his funeral in 2003 with their families. Another example of the unexpectedly (at least to us to us outsiders) complex interaction of people within Boggo Road.

There again, Boggo Road was no game of Happy Families and a lot of people have terrible memories of the old prison and would be happy to see it vanish from the landscape altogether. And that's not just the ex-inmates who suffered there, but also those former officers who left the job with various levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then again, some of those who suffered want the place to remain open and tell the full story of life inside, gory details included.

The point is that you can't pigeonhole people from Boggo Road based on their history as either officers or inmates.

If we could use television as a rough guide to real life (which we can't really), then a good example would be the classic TV show 'Porridge', set in a 1970s British prison. The main focus is on the prisoners, a mixed bunch of guys, some more likable than others, with a few nasties like Harry Grout thrown in. The characterisations of the officers are a bit limited, with the 'hard' Mr McKay and the 'soft' Mr Barrowclough being towards each end of the spectrum. What you see in Porridge is not just comedic conflict between the two tribes of officers and prisoners, but also between the prisoners (and the officers) themselves. Even prisoners at the time said it was the 'most accurate portrayal of real prison life on TV'.

This inter-personal and systemic conflict is at the heart of Boggo Road's history. The central element of any compelling story is conflict, and Boggo Road has that in spades, on so many levels, and all new researchers need to leave any preconceptions at the door.

14 August 2011

Back Inside Boggo Road!

A couple of weeks back I took a range of BRGHS members, including university academics, former museum workers, and ex-officers and inmates, back to Boggo Road. The occasion was an inspection of the grounds of the old prison in the company of Public Works officials to let us check what kind of condition the place was in.

There has been much speculation within the BRGHS over recent months about what was happening to the buildings behind the prison walls, with a few members still convinced that 'the government want to knock it down', despite the fact that Public Works have employed people to look after the grounds internally and externally. Letting people inside to see for themselves proved to be very useful.

Feedback was varied, and points of view seemed to depend on when people had last seen the place. Those who had not stepped foot in Boggo Road since the 1980s, when it was still a fully-functioning prison, were not too impressed, but the museum staff who worked at the site until 2006 saw little difference. Even John Banks, the notoriously difficult-to-please former museum manager, said he was 'pleasantly surprised' by the condition of the old gaol. There has of course been a bit of wear and tear on the buildings, but they are as solid as ever and the grounds are looking good, as I reported when I visited Boggo Road a few months back. We did notice one or two problems, which I won't go into here as I am currently discussing a solution for these with Public Works, which should be ready to roll within weeks. Watch this space for news of that one.

All talk of the actual condition of the place aside, it was great to see such a mixed bunch of people exploring the old gaol, some for the first time, others having a much, much longer and deeper experience spanning several decades. Everyone saw it through their own eyes and memories, and had the chance to chat to the public servants about what is happening there.

There were also unexpected visitors in the form of a family of four, who saw that the small door within the main gates was open and walked inside wanting to have a look around. So even though Boggo Road is off the beaten track and has been closed to the public for almost six years now, casually open the door for 30 minutes and 'they will come'!

09 August 2011

The Extraordinarily Dubious World of Ghost-Quackery

Do ghost-detecting gadgets really work? A look at the amazing thngs people are willing to believe in the 21st century.
Another shot was fired in the War on Science in 2011 when Brisbane's Courier-Mail printed a story on 'ghostbusting'. The big news was apparently that a couple of suburban kids had bought some ghost-detecting gadgets off the Internet and were using them to, well, 'detect ghosts'. This gadgetry included a 99-cent smart phone app that translates supernatural communication into English (at 99 cents, how can it NOT work?).

As is often the case with ghosty-type news, it was just product of lazy journalism. Actually, that's probably a bit harsh, because after allowing the usual quacks in the field to have their say, the reporter balanced their views with those of University of Queensland Associate Professor of Philosophy and paranormal sceptic William Grey, which is a bit like balancing a goldfish with a blue whale.

Professor Grey said that, 'anecdotal evidence should be scrutinised carefully', which I liked straight away because that is the exact point of my 'Haunting Question' book. He also added that there 'was no scientific basis for believing modern technology could detect paranormal activity', and, 'I don't dispute for a moment that this equipment will detect electromagnetic fields... What I find extraordinarily dubious is the suggestion that these technological devices can be used for detecting a ghostly presence.' Once again, spot on.

Further sanity was restored in the online comments section for the story, where most people lined up to point and laugh, and also offer the ghost hunters in question some top value shopping deals:

"Delusion takes many forms, doesn't it."
"A fool and his money are soon parted."
"LOL. An app that can interpret ghostly communications. Somebodies having their leg pulled."
"Gadgets to pick up the spirit realm? There are mugs everywhere."
"The only expert quoted in this article made it clear these machines have zero scientific credibility in this context, but as long as we're here I have a 'fairy detector' made out of an old Corn Flake box these guys might be interested in purchasing."
"what these boys are doing is the exact opposite of ghostbusting, they're actually inventing ghosts"
"I have a spanner that can detect paranormal entities.. I will sell it to you for $450."

'Invisible Helmet' sold in 1950s comics to children.
Unfortunately, one or two old porkies were also reheated and served up again in the form of 'Brisbane is Australia's most haunted city'. Claims that 'Brisbane is the second most haunted city in the world' have recently been proven by others to be false. It is quite simply a lie made up and spread around by the guy who runs 'Brisbane Ghost Tours'. The Internet, however, has the power to keep regurgitating this stuff back up for gullible punters.

Still, there is an obvious market for this ghost-hunting stuff, and surely it can only be a matter of time before Choice magazine exposes the technological quackery at the heart of this mini-industry. In the meantime, as long as 'news'papers like the Courier-Mail run these non-stories and give unwarranted exposure to people acting out immature fantasies of ghost hunting, gadget sales will continue to tick over.

It'd almost like they never noticed that at the end of every Scooby Doo episode, the ghost or the monster turned out to be just another con job by some shady character with ulterior motives. Surprisingly similar to real life, as it turn out.