Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 2.15.55 pm
Type
Article
Category
History
Prison

‘Nightmare like and unreal’: the letter from Pentridge

The following letter was smuggled out of Pentridge Prison in July 1972 by Barry York, when he was imprisoned in the ‘A’ Division.

A preamble – Barry York

The letter was written secretly in my cell in ‘A’ Division when I was a prisoner in Pentridge Gaol with two comrades, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson. There was no shortage of time to write it, as we were in solitary confinement, in our separate cells, for sixteen hours each day.

In writing the letter, I was careful not to be detected by the screws. They would have been very angry about it. So, I hid it under my mattress, folding the letter narrowly so that I could hide it under the side of the mattress nearest to the wall. One day, the warders came in to do a cell inspection. They did the usual finger across the top of the door checking for dust, and then checked that the blankets were folded into perfect squares and then – to my horror – they decided to check under the mattress. They pushed it up from the bed frame but not far enough, so my letter was still hidden at the side of the bed nearest to the wall. I was very worried, I can tell you.

I forget how the letter was smuggled out – possibly by Ted Hill, chairman of the CPA(ML), on one of his visits as our ‘legal adviser’. I recall that Ted used to smuggle the newspaper Vanguard into the gaol by rolling it up and putting it under his trouser leg. He would then give it to me, during a ‘legal visit’, and I’d do the same and carry it in my sock and trouser leg to ‘A’ Division.

Vanguard, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), published the letter on 17 August 1972, after we were released (on 4 August). They knew not to publish it while we were still inside. Thank heavens.

*

We were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972.

We had been leaders of the militant student movement at La Trobe University and prohibited from entering the campus under an injunction taken out by the University authorities. We defied the injunction, seeing it as an encroachment on free speech and an attempt to quell campus militancy. For ‘stepping foot upon the premises known as La Trobe University’, we were gaoled without trial, without sentence (i.e., indefinitely), without rights of bail or appeal.

Fergus was captured first and did four months. Brian Pola next, did three months. I was caught last, and served six weeks. Rodney Taylor, the fourth named in the injunction, avoided capture. We were released when the University authorities surrendered to the mass campaign against the gaolings and approached the Supreme Court for the abandonment of the injunctions.

*

When I read my letter today – forty-five years on – I stand by its description of prison life. However, I would moderate some of my language. For instance, I wouldn’t refer to the gaol as a concentration camp; though technically it was similar. But, ‘concentration camp’ brings to mind the Nazi rule of terror in Germany in the 1930s and Pentridge was nothing like that. (Did I even have to say that?)

Also, the analysis that concluded that ‘all prisoners are political prisoners’ because they were victims of the class war was manifestly wrong. There was, and is, a big difference between people who are imprisoned for their political activities or beliefs and those who rob banks and steal cars. I’m not sure now why I would have gone along with that anarchist slogan. I identified as a communist, after all.

*

In 1973, Fergus and Brian and I, and others, revived the Victorian Prisoners’ Action Committee (PAC). I became its spokesman for three or four years. The PAC fought for prison reform but tried to connect the issue to the bigger question of capitalism and its overthrow. We supported the rebellion that was taking place inside Pentridge and other gaols, led by inmates with whom we had become friendly, and perhaps influenced, on the inside. (We used to hide works by Marx, Lenin and Mao on the very top of the bookcase in the prison library, laying them flat and out of view of the prison officers. We were able to receive such books from the outside, after a La Trobe academic comrade assured the prison authorities they were ‘for educational purposes’! Sympathetic prisoners knew of this secret stash of subversive material that was allowed in only for the ‘La Trobe Three’).

In campaigning for prison reform, we were able to assist individuals on their release. This experience was double-edged, and some negative experiences led me to better understand that there is such a thing as personal responsibility and agency, not just victimhood. Even the most oppressed individuals can make choices for the better within the confines of socio-economic limitation. Too many didn’t. Bad culture perpetuates oppression.

*

This year, I came across the letter as published in Vanguard while sorting and culling folders of old paperwork. It reminded me of how genuine we were in our commitment to revolutionary change back then, and how lucky I was to have been active in those years of global solidarity from 1967 to 1972. We really believed we were approaching a revolutionary situation. Perhaps the State had similar feelings, and that may explain why they came down so heavily on those who went beyond reformism and challenged the system itself.

Of course, the revolution didn’t materialise but the broader social movement, of which we were part, won changes that cannot be reversed.

And, perhaps best of all: we certainly gave some bad reactionaries a very hard time!

My book Student Revolt is online for those interested in more detail.

*

The letter from Pentridge, July 1972

As I write this letter from my cell in ‘A’ Division, two very significant occurrences are taking place.

Firstly a radio announcement from the Prison Committee’s prisoners’ representative has called for prisoners in remand to submit affidavits to Mr. Kelly, a solicitor on the Government Prison Inquiry, regarding a vicious attack by about 30 screws (N.B. prison slang for warders) on 4 Bendigo escapees and about 6 other prisoners. Pentridge is buzzing with the news. The escapees, according to eye witness reports, were beaten with 3 ft. long night sticks. Apparently, one had his head forced through a railing on a staircase. The scalp split wide open and he lost much blood.

Other prisoners in remand who objected to the screws’ violent attack were also bashed. One of the prisoners who received a bashing has identified [name removed] not only as one of those most active in the baton attack, but also as one who laid in the boot after some of the prisoners were beaten unconscious!! The escapees, still without medical aid, have been placed in Pentridge’s ‘maximum security’ division, ‘H’ Division.

HELL DIVISION

‘H’ Division stands for ‘Hell’ Division. And this leads me to the second significant occurrence taking place as I write.

From his cell in ‘H’, Paul Hertzell [correct spelling is Hetzel] is screaming out the following statement:–

‘Hey all you toffs (N.B. prison slang for ‘good blokes’) out there! You’re doing a terrific job! We’ve got to get rid of this incompetent government!’, ‘Down with the imperial government!’, ‘This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’. All ‘H’ prisoners are political prisoners – a result of the government’s incompetency!’, ‘Free all political prisoners!’, ‘Abolish ‘H’!’, ‘Hey you toffs out there! This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’…’

I have an almost uncontrollable urge to climb up to my window and scream back my complete support, but unfortunately, I lack the courage of Paul Hertzell. Confronted in an isolated prison cell by overpowering violence, Hertzell’s protests prove conclusively what we already know to be true – namely, that where there is repression there is resistance.

SYMBOL OF IMPERIALISM

Pentridge was born out of the domination of Australia by British imperialism in the 19th Century. Today it serves as a monument to the fascist bestiality of the U.S., British and Japanese imperialists and the local quislings who dominate Australia economically, politically, and culturally. This statement may seem rhetorical and emotional but the situation in Pentridge, with its emphasis on psychological as well as physical punishment, is similar to a concentration camp. It is an institution of fascism in the sense that it is an institution based on overt reactionary violence. Its existence and present function and nature proves that the state is a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and, that under capitalism this means the oppression of the working class by the capitalist class.

Let me elaborate by relating my own personal experiences and some of the experiences of other prisoners, in the form of a brief description of the divisions which constitute Pentridge.

‘A’ DIVISION

We are currently located in ‘A’ Division. Relatively speaking, ‘A’ is the ‘best’ Division in Pentridge. The prisoners throughout Pentridge have waged heroic struggles which have improved conditions in ‘A’ Division and led to a reduction in the use of violence against the prisoners by the screws. Applying the old colonial principle of ‘divide and rule’, one very small section of ‘A’ Division is reserved for the elite of prisoners; the ‘aristocracy of prisoners’ if you like. This section (consisting of about ten out of 160 cells) is used as a public relations centre. Any visiting magistrates of government inquiry teams are promptly directed to this section. The prisoners there are the ‘good boys’ who earn $2.50 a week in positions as head librarian and the like. The real ‘A’ Division is the ‘A’ in which the vast majority of prisoners exist. No T.V. sets, record players or heaters for these prisoners on $1.30 a week – just mental and psychological anguish, pre-planned long term physical destruction, and cruel, sadistic humiliation. This is the real ‘A’ Division, the ‘A’ Division in which the vast majority exist.

‘B’ DIVISION

‘B’ Division lacks the relative freedom of life in ‘A’. Conditions are far worse and the intensity of manual labour and degradation by the authorities are far more extreme. ‘B’ is organised on the basis of strict regimented discipline. One prisoner who spent some years in ‘B’ has informed me that the discipline in ‘B’ reminded him of the discipline enforced upon him in ‘H’ Division. Unlike in ‘A’ where you are permitted to occasionally forget to address the screws as ‘sir’ in ‘B’ any such omission is sometimes met with physical assault, but more typically, verbal abuse. A report received from another prisoner who had just ‘graduated’ from ‘B’ to ‘A’ claims that ‘the tense atmosphere in ‘B’ can be sliced with a knife’. Again, I could not help but recall those words of Chairman Mao’s ‘Where there is repression there is resistance’.

‘C’ DIVISION

‘C’ Division looks like a scene from a ghost town in one of those old cowboy movies. The cells are literally iron bolted stables. Even the government declared ‘C’ Division a ‘condemned’ division some years ago but still nothing has been done about it. ‘C’ is renowned throughout Pentridge for its rat problem. Huge gaps exist in the cell doors which allow the rats to enter each cell. Naturally, there is a much higher rate of disease in ‘C’ than in ‘A’. ‘C’ remains unsewered. Prisoners must contend with only a small night pan. One old prisoner who spent several years in ‘C’, explained to me that during summer he used to sleep on the floor of his cell with his face near the gap below the door because the general stench of ‘C’ and the specific smell of his cell used to become unbearable.

‘D’ DIVISION

‘D’ Division or ‘Remand’ is second only to ‘H’ Division. I spent some time in remand. The cells in ‘D’ are basically toilets equipped with a bed. The entire cell smells of semi-sewered toilet. Even by the lowly standards of bourgeois morality the conditions are appalling. The ‘D’ prisoners spend all day long pacing up and down the remand yard. This yard consists of a small triangular concrete yard surrounded by three huge blue-stone walls which block out any sunlight. One shower, one open toilet, and one clothes hoist allegedly make the yard suitable for fifty men. One prisoner I met had spent 12 months in remand awaiting trial. In this sense, remand is a sort of ‘limbo’. It represents an in-between world between the courts and prison.

‘E’ DIVISION

Any prisoner may see the prison doctor at ‘E’ Division and receive medical or dental attention. ‘E’ is basically a dormitory for sick prisoners. It is apparently based on very strict discipline and I have been told some prisoners are sent to ‘E’ as a form of punishment. There is only one doctor to cater for Pentridge’s 1,200 prisoners.

‘F’ DIVISION

‘F’ is simply a dormitory for about 30 prisoners from the remand yard. The rest of the remand prisoners retire in ‘D’ Division cells which I have already described.

‘G’ DIVISION

‘G’ is the Prison Psychiatric Centre. Not all prisoners who need psychiatric care get it though. In ‘A’ at the moment, for one example, is a prisoner who just sits in the sun trembling all day. He studies his hands as though inspecting each intricate part of the mechanics of a clock, for hours on end. He showers each day but can never remember where the shower room is located. He clearly requires urgent psychiatric attention.

‘J’ DIVISION

Before describing the notorious ‘H’ Division, let me say something about ‘J’ Division. Presumably ‘J’ stands for ‘Junior’ as the prisoners here are aged between 18 and 21. Some of these lads are beaten and humiliated by the senior authorities and their lackeys, the screws. All sorts of sexually perverted acts are launched against some of these basically decent young Australians. Looking down into the ‘J’ Division Labour Yard and seeing these tired, ragged, illiterate, scruffy uniformed young prisoners, I could not help but recollect some of the apt descriptions of the Pentridges of yesteryear as reported by Charles Dickens in ‘Little Dorrit’.

‘THE SLOT’, ‘H’ DIVISION

The maximum security Division is ‘H’ Division or, to use the prison slang, the ‘Slot’. The ‘H’ stands for ‘Hell’. I have interviewed ex-’H’ prisoners who have informed me of the heinous sadistic crimes launched against them by the screws in ‘H’. I entered ‘H’ two days ago to collect some laundry. It would not be an exaggeration if I were to describe the effect ‘H’ had on me as ‘spine chilling’. The ‘Slot’ is a small building guarded at the front entrance by two huge brutal looking screws. The first thing I noticed on entering the front doors with my laundry trolley was a large mirror (used to observe anyone approaching) with a long horizontal crack in it. I later discovered that a prisoner had been thrown onto the mirror. The whole situation struck me as nightmare like and unreal. It was very macabre, like something out of Luna Park’s Chamber of Horrors, only extremely serious. The two screws reminded me of ‘heavies’ from a Boris Karloff movie. They abused me and attempted to humiliate me. Why? Simply because I dared enter the ‘Slot’ and leave with my trolley full of laundry. ‘H’ prisoners are put to work in the ‘Labour Yard’ where they spend hours each day breaking up rocks. They are marched around the yard with military discipline. Most of these men have been sent to ‘H’ for breaches of internal discipline. Many of those who have visited ‘H’ still have the signs to prove it: scars, broken noses, etc. Conditions are so bad that two ‘H’ prisoners have hung themselves during the past few years. Others cut their wrists or throat in order to be removed from ‘H’ and sent to hospital. One ‘H’ prisoner swallowed a 12 inch long metal towel rack. He was sent to hospital and the rack was removed by surgical operation. He was then returned to ‘H’ and promptly swallowed the metal towel rack once more.

‘H’ from what I can fathom, rightly deserves the title: ‘Hell’. You have probably heard about the infamous ‘Bash’, or at least seen the slogans painted on factory walls around North Melbourne, ‘Ban the Bash’. The ‘Bash’ has recently been abolished as a result of the prisoner’s rebellion and the government’s inquiry. I met one 26 year-old prisoner who had just been released from ‘H’ after 3 and a half years! Snowy white hair, badly injured eyes, and sickly yellow skin, this once dark haired, normal, healthy young Australian has been subjected to one of capitalism’s ‘rehabilitation’ programmes. He related to me his experiences in ‘H’ when the ‘Bash’ was a formal daily occurrence. The screws would order individual ‘H’ prisoners to jump into the air. When the prisoner landed after having jumped into the air, he would be told: ‘You were ordered to jump into the air, you were not told to land’ and promptly given a bashing. On other occasions prisoners in ‘H’ would be directed to march into cell walls and keep marching until badly bruised and bleeding. Others would be humiliated and forced to imitate animals.

All this in the name of ‘rehabilitation’!!

A few days ago a riot broke out in ‘H’. I saw the smoke, heard the screams, and saw the screws frantically running hither and thither. Again I recalled those wise and correct words, ‘Where there is repression there is resistance’.

THE PRISONERS AND THE SCREWS

Now I would like to give you my general impressions of my fellow prisoners and the screws.

My fellow prisoners are, generally speaking, courageous and kind-hearted men. Most have an instinctive hatred of the capitalist class. They are all political prisoners in the sense that their alleged crimes are socially induced. No murderer is born a murderer, no rapist born a rapist. The various types of social pressures exerted on decent working people by the corrupt and exploitative capitalist class force some people to resort to crime. But what do we mean by ‘crime’? Is the man who steals food (or money to buy food) for his family really a criminal? And what of the unemployed or unemployable, the so called ‘vagrant’? Ah, but, you will ask, what of the man who murdered and raped his sister? Surely, I reply, he needs help and pity, not sadist-based punishment. He should be, to coin the popular stereotyped expression, ‘rehabilitated’. But the notion of ‘rehabilitation’ is by no means a neutral concept. The fundamental question remains ‘rehabilitated’ to what sort of social system and to what sort of value system? The capitalist class can be so hypocritical! They maintain and profit from the social system based on exploitation in the form of private appropriation and the value system based on selfishness and yet they seek to ‘rehabilitate’ the convicted criminal to re-accept those very same social conditions and values which engender crime in the first place!!

This is the same capitalist class which gives out-and-out ‘Sanctity of Law’ to mass destruction of property and people in Indo-China and to the foreign plunder of Australia, yet send basically decent working people to the Pentridge concentration camp for alleged ‘crimes against private property’. Of course there are criminals and there are criminals. But getting to the root cause of the problem, the real criminals are the very same hypocrites who uphold the present penal system. I refer of course to the criminal capitalist class which, like a lowly parasitic thief, thrives off the labour of others.

‘PRISON POLICE’

Now let me comment on the screws, the prison police. Just as it is often claimed that there are ‘good’ as well as ‘bad’ police, so it is said there are the ‘good’ screws and the ‘bad’ screws. The role of the screws is really indefensible. They maintain ‘law-n-order’ within the concentration camp. Some do it with a smile, others don’t give a damn, others take great pride in their work. This latter type is the most prominent, active, and vocal within Pentridge. All the screws are armed with either batons, guns, or .303 rifles. The latter type of screw is sadistic and gains pleasure from humiliating the prisoners. They abuse and try to humiliate us. In ‘H’ Division for example, prisoners are forced to lie on their stomachs naked on their beds and hold the cheeks of their back-sides wide apart for the screws to examine. In ‘A’ Division, one cold frosty morning I was ordered by a clenched fisted screw to ‘Get you f…… hands out of your f…… pockets’. (They are very foul-mouthed creatures.) However, in trying so desperately to humiliate others, they really only humiliate themselves.

The screws and prison authorities fear the prisoners’ rebellion. Like all reactionaries they are superficially strong but essentially weak. Like the vast majority of prisoners I hate the screws and prison authorities with an intense class hatred.

The day is not far off when justice will be dealt to the screws, the prison authorities, and the entire ruling class!

 

Barry, Brian and Fergus outside Pentridge in 2012 – a reunion!

Barry, Brian and Fergus outside Pentridge in 2012

 

Header image: Pentridge Prison exterior – Film Victoria

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21stleft.com.

More by

Comments

  1. Thank you very much Barry, for your informative description of the conditions and treatment dealt out to yourself and other prisoners in Pentridge, not all that long ago. It will remain a great source of shame to the Victorian Government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>