Power with sisters inside

ON JANUARY 7, 1990, Australia's only murder inside a women's prison occurred at Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre at Boggo Road. The old jail, overcrowded and dilapidated, had been simmering with barely contained tension for some time. Many of the 106 women were locked together; two to a cell, in the "bottom" section of the jail behind a gate that prison officers chose to keep shut, restricting the already minimal movement of prisoners and ensuring a tinderbox environment of festering pressures.

It was a humid, soupy Brisbane summer. In the aftermath of the festive season it was a high-stress time – mothers locked away from their children, women separated from other loved ones. As I remember it, it was an afternoon heavy with threat – if someone looked at another person the wrong way, we knew they'd blow.

I was sitting next to Debbie Dick when two women, wielding sharpened barbecue forks, came from behind us on a covered veranda outside the dining room. I was fit and wiry and managed to swing away from the blades. But Debbie Dick didn't stand a chance. Storm Brooke, who later confessed to her murder, had broken into a frenzy of stabbing, which stopped only when I picked up a chair and crashed it onto her back. Brooke ran off with the weapons; I was bleeding with a slight wound to my chest. As I crouched over Debbie Dick life ebbed out of her on the hard concrete floor.


TWO NOTABLE ACTIONS occured in the aftermath of the murder: my refusal to "dog" (I chose instead the prisoners' code of payback); and an extraordinary, but short-lived, experiment in reform by a government prepared to take the "punishment" out of prisons.

In the ensuing years, the unlikely results of these two actions coalesced to produce the controversial prison advocacy organisation, Sisters Inside, and to catapult me into the public eye more spectacularly than my original sentence for drug trafficking had done.

At the beginning of 1990, at the same time as Storm Brooke was sharpening her weapons and biding her time, Queensland was still congratulating itself on electing its first Labor government in 32 years. Wayne Goss was elected in December 1989 with a clear mandate to reform the state's tired and backward institutions after the sordid revelations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

Keith Hamburger, appointed director-general of Corrective Services, had reformist ideas, too, but Debbie's murder was the catalyst for the kind of change even a new government might have been shy of. Together with the new manager of the prison, George Brand, he did the opposite of what would be expected today: he loosened the rules. Effectively, Hamburger and Brand opened up the prison.

The idea was to involve the community in the running of the prison and to get prisoners out and interacting with the community. Prisoners were given more leave of absence, enabling low-security women to spend more time with their families; supervised outings were organised and women could attend university and other courses; and community organisations were invited into the prison to discuss ways to improve general conditions.

Initiatives aimed at getting prisoners into the community worked well. Women were given some trust, and a stake in their own futures, often for the first time in their lives; they were given responsibility and limited power over their own rehabilitation; and enticing tastes of a better life outside.

The notorious bottom gate at Boggo Road was left unlocked at Brand's direction. Low-security prisoners worked in a plant nursery just outside the wall. Prison officers took a group running along the nearby river path several times a week; there were canoeing expeditions, a dinner at the Crest Hotel. There were no escape attempts. Over time, the separation of various factions inside, combined with the less-oppressive atmosphere, defused the unspoken demands for payback. My single-minded obsession with avenging Debbie's murder abated.


THE INVOLVEMENT OF community organisations, however, fell flat. My actions these days are predicated on one enduring philosophy: a "power with", as opposed to a "power over", approach to people. It was those community organisations' "power over" approach that failed them, an approach that still fails the do-gooders who come to Sisters Inside anxious to help.

In the beginning, these agencies came into the prison and spent all their time talking to management. No one came near the women. No one came to us to ask how to fix the problems – and we were the ones who knew. Later, some of these people got to know us and attached themselves to us as friends. But that only lasted while we followed their line. Once we got on our feet and began to challenge them and some of their actions, we were dropped or accused of "going back to our old ways".

We quickly found that once you step outside the do-gooder's vision for you, they ditch you. It is a relationship built on their power over you. Once you start to get your own power, and walk the same arena, they're off. It happens again and again.


WHEN, AFTER MY release, I formed a fledgling support group to advocate for the rights of women prisoners, there was no question about who would form the steering committee: Sisters Inside would be run by women inside. The management committee outside would listen, and then act.

But there was more to learn. In the beginning, Sisters Inside was focused on a group of lifers and long-term prisoners. These were the women who had formed my coterie, those whom I had come to know in prison, those who trusted me. In prison culture, there is a long-established distrust of short-termers and a general disregard for what is perceived as their "whingeing".

When Sisters Inside was funded by the State Government to run its first program and employed staff, I was forced to rethink the power relations; I had to walk my own talk.

If Sisters Inside was to support women in prison it needed to support all women in prison. Before that, we were set up against each other, long-termers kept short-termers at bay. But trauma is trauma, no matter how long you endure it. I had to recognise that and so did the lifers. We had to focus on the system as the enemy, not each other.

This was personal. Storm Brooke, the woman who murdered Debbie Dick, the woman I had schemed to kill in revenge, was locked up in isolation for months after the murder. Several years later, when members of the newly formed Sisters Inside were meeting in the prison chapel, Brooke and her associates were still corralled, separated from other prisoners.

I knew that if the Sisters Inside's philosophy was going to work and be respected, Brooke needed to be involved. We needed all the women on side, so we had to pull her in. And I had to convince the lifers that if it was going to be about all women, it couldn't be all women except her.

Brooke – aware of the implications of my refusal to tell tales – readily accepted the invitation, and in the years since, we have slowly worked through our personal issues. At each Sisters Inside management meeting, we inch forward. It hasn't been easy. I know she still struggles on a day-to-day basis with what happened, just as I do.


AT LEAST PART of my struggle was resolved in the days of the do-gooders and their attempts to fix things in the aftermath of Debbie Dick's murder. This was a time when I was still determined to kill Brooke, a time when I dreamed vividly of letting her blood run as freely as Debbie's had.

A group of prisoners was asked to stand up in front of community representatives and other inmates to talk about their experiences of incarceration. I sat down to write. I recorded everything from my first taste of prison as a 13-year-old, when I was locked up in the notorious Wilson Youth Hospital, and the days of violence, abuse and tragedy that followed.

I had been no more than a tearaway child, a truant who brawled with my mother and regularly ran away from home. Wilson Hospital was my parents' last-gasp solution. It was a genuine attempt to reform a wild, but scarcely criminal, daughter. It was shockingly ironic that my admission to this reviled institution had the reverse effect.

Months after I was admitted, my father died suddenly from a massive heart attack. The staff, who were determined to punish me as much as possible, told me I had killed him. It was a pronouncement that reverberated in my adolescent heart. It convinced me of my innate badness. It made me believe I deserved to be hurt and punished over and over. My life became a litany of violent relationships, alcohol-fuelled rage and a "come and get me" attitude to the world.

None of this was obvious to me in early 1990. I wrote my piece for the gathering in the prison gymnasium and rehearsed it with my mates. But when I stood up in front of this group, I began to realise what I was saying: that I'd taken responsibility for Dad's death. I was 29 and for 15 years I'd believed I'd killed my father.

For the first time I really confronted it. I broke down completely, sobbing. Someone came up to me and offered to finish reading it, but I said: "No, I've got to do this."

Afterwards, everything changed. I realised I wasn't a bad person, that I did not need punishment. I realised I was the victim of a system that betrayed young people and shoehorned them into a life of imprisonment, grief and marginalisation.

MY ADOLESCENCE WAS lost. My first days in detention set the blueprint; I spent most of my teenage years in and out of Wilson. My uncontrollable anger and outrage fuelled others' anger against me. I endured isolation and humiliation. I was vilified as wild and beyond redemption. Looking back now, I am no longer surprised at my violence, the petty crime, the mistrust of anything mainstream or "straight" in the world. From the age of 13, I had been set up as one of the underclass, a receptacle for blame.

But since my revelation, after my imprisonment at Boggo Road for drug trafficking in 1989 – under the Bjelke-Petersen government's draconian mandatory life sentences – my path has been determined and unrelenting. I wanted to ensure that my own children did not get caught in the quicksand that awaits many children of prisoners, and to work towards the abolition of prisons.

My mantra is that prison doesn't work. More than 60 per cent of women released from prison return to prison. That's a 60 per cent failure rate. If any of our other big institutions or government departments ran those kinds of figures, they'd be shut down.

Lives are ravaged and sometimes destroyed even by short prison sentences. The jailing of two high-profile women in Queensland last year – former chief magistrate Di Fingleton and former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson – has brought the problem to the public's attention. When Hanson was released she spoke tearfully of her desire to hug her family – women in prison are traumatised, they are strip-searched if they want to touch their children or partners when they visit. These were just two ordinary women. Did the community feel safer because they were locked up? Is it really about public safety? Or the kind of punishment that keeps hurting for the rest of your life?

Since my release, I have graduated with a degree in social work and am nearly through a law degree. Last year, I was awarded an OAM for services to women in prison and the community, and won the Queensland Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Award – Community and Government.

Sisters Inside now employs 12 full-time staff and I am its director. The power is in the hands of those inside, not the do-gooders on the outside. This way Sisters Inside provides the support I never had. Of course, there will always be women who fall through the cracks with us, too, but that will be their choice. They know they can keep coming back to us and we have women who do keep coming back. Eventually it will be all right for them. Other organisations – the do-gooders, the helpers – will turn them away because they've failed once, or twice. Not us. We're not here for the thankyous.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review