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.

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