I have gathered with forty or so volunteers, actors, comedians and Whitelion employees at the Watch House of the Old Melbourne Gaol for the annual Bail Out – a fundraising event to keep the Whitelion coffers overflowing with funds which will go towards helping disadvantaged young people break the prison-release-prison-release cycle.
Melbourne’s corporate big wigs have donated copious amounts of money to be treated as inmates. It is my responsibility to make the experience as authentic as possible and even though I am dressed in an official Victoria Police uniform I’m overwhelmed by nerves, doubt my ability to portray a hardened prison guard convincingly, and so sneak the earpiece of my IPOD into my left ear in an attempt to slip into character with some authentic, self-esteem building 80s classics.
As the ‘inmates’ begin to arrive full of giggles and cheers, clip-clopping on the bluestone floors in their polished boots and high-heels a random shuffle of my IPOD delivers Get Down On It by Kool & The Gang and all my fears, doubts and insecurities are instantly dissolved. I’m relieved to feel awash with a perfect, volcanic disdain for humanity. I am an uncompromising meat-axe of a policeman and although I am wearing a regulation Victoria Police bullet-proof vest it is only an ornament – a peacock’s feather – when compared to the protection I am offered by my total lack of compassion for the inmates under my supervision. I am a merciless enforcer of the law in Australia’s most notorious prison and I have only one wish: to inflict a mental anguish on others. I will spare no one.
Within minutes I have lined up thirty prisoners in two lines and am pacing the blue stone floor with the snarl and impatience of Naomi Campbell waiting on a delayed flight at an airport and even though I am aware, on some level, that the inmates around me are human, I record them only as an inconvenience and my contempt grows with each new arrival.
‘Eyes down at the floor tough guy,’ I say to a young woman, and when she looks to the man on her right and smiles, nervously, I move closer so that my nose breath dampens her cheek and say, ‘Oh I think the long-termers are gunna love you… pretty boy! Here for a bit of fun are we…’ I yell and before I know it, have added, ‘…guvna?’ complete with a cockney accent.
Strangely, this seems to do the trick and the rest of the inmates in the line – twenty at least – stop shuffling and stand stiffly, eyes to the ground. I am now a walking hard-on, so infused with a sense of power that my teeth are gritted and on display through a triumphant smile and as the inmates continue to roll through the Gaol, one after the other, a rhythm builds and a strict hierarchy develops and the officers and guards grow more ruthless and the prisoners begin to accept their place and a range of behaviour is displayed depending on temperament and training and while most start and stop and turn and jump as ordered – some even rushing by with shoulders hunched and head tucked submissively from one prison cell experience to the next – others fill their chest with air, or move more slowly as their weapon of defiance but all, eventually, do as they are told.
The heavy doors of the Old Melbourne Gaol scream open and closed on their ancient hinges and the chattering of inmates mixes with the bellowing of outraged guards and the echoing footsteps of two hundred people builds a sense of craziness, a semblance of panic, and time accelerates as we move from cell to cell and with each chuckle, or sideways glance from my inmates I react with a snarl and a command and while most respond in a way that pleases me there are two large Caucasian males who continue to back-chat and jostle with each other and on the way from ‘cell experience four’ to ‘cell experience five’ I stop them.
‘Turn the fuck around,’ I say, ‘Face the fucken wall.’
They do as I say, as the others watch on, and when I tell them to place their hands on the bluestone and spread their legs and bend over they comply, expecting a laugh and quick reprieve, but with my blood lust not quite satisfied I tell them to place their hands further down, and further down again, until their shoulders are lower than their hips and when I kneel to see the expression on their faces I see pain there and to inspire terror I tell them that even though it may seem that I am only acting like a heartless Police Officer, I have actually killed things – moths and snails and even a praying mantis, once, while I was pruning a hedge – and I am so overwhelmed by my heartless portrayal of an actual prison guard that I shuffle my IPOD to Corey Hart’s I Wear My Sunglasses At Night and clench my fists as we continue moving cell to cell until we reach our final stop – ‘cell experience seven’ – and the earpiece is shocked from my ear by an actor playing a psychotic prisoner who rushes me and screams, ‘Where’s my fucking smokes, cunt?!’ and I open up like a well-struck piñata, losing my sense of strength, my illusion of power and my hard-fought mercilessness to the prison floor.
‘Smokes…’ I repeat, patting at my pant pockets, stupidly, my eyes circling their sockets – wildfire – for the next word, as he screams again, ‘Don’t fucking talk to me!’ and begins an insane desperate monologue that doesn’t end even as we are leaving his cell.
After the ‘cell experiences’ the inmates are tried and incarcerated and then released after raising a huge amount of bail and despite the fact that ninety minutes have passed I am still lost in a dense fog of humiliation. We gather in the enormous drafty hallway of the Watch House and while awaiting the signal to proceed to the Gaol House After-Party I decide to try for a more buoyant mood by starting a conversation with another of my inmates – an older lady – and say, with a forced chuckle to carry the illusions of nonchalance, ‘Remember when that guy called me a cunt…?’.
After a brief expression of horror she moves away from me stiffly in a way that reminds me of the Star Wars robot C3PO and so in a final attempt to recover some dignity, I nod at one of the large Caucasian males I had bending over earlier and say, ‘So, what corporate group are you guys from?’ and when he answers, ‘Victoria Police’ my only response is ‘Oh, shit.’
Several drinks later I am partying on with everyone else at The Old Melbourne Gaol. The music is loud and the drinks are distributed freely and everyone is having a great time in a part of the world that has housed incredible horror and suffering. As the night winds down and the party begins to settle, Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House combines with my semi-drunk state and I can’t help but reflect on myself and where I have come from.
I am here, a partying man, because I have come from a supportive family and a comfortable life and even though I have had my moments of despair and rebellion and leapt into situations that have had the potential to be disastrous, I have always been free in a way that a loved child is free from abuse and neglect, and free in a way that a teenager is free to rebel, fall, recover and grow within a supportive family who are always aware of him, and always ‘there’. The life I’m leading now is a ‘success’ but even as I acknowledge this fact, and am grateful for it, I know that it is not from my effort alone but a reflection of the privilege I have come from and what that privilege has built around me.
Having worked as a youth support worker for ten years, I know that many of the prisoners who spent their lives here suffered horrifically through childhoods of neglect and abuse. Their freedom was taken from them and prison walls were built around them even as they were taking their first steps. They were given the skills to carry that neglect and abuse within them, to inflict it upon themselves, and their entry into the justice system is just another result of that skill. To break the cycle and build other skills takes a great amount of effort, assistance and luck. It feels great to have been a small part of the effort.
The 2011 Bail Out raised $300,000, enough to support 30 disadvantaged young people for twelve months.
Visit the Whitelion website for a report of the night.