Wish you weren’t here

On being a tourist in the criminal justice system

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THE FIRST THING you need to know about visiting a prisoner at the Darwin Correctional Centre is that the jail is a long way from town.

If you are not from Darwin or don’t have a car, you’ll need to catch a taxi. There is no public transport to the DCC.

Your taxi driver will say fuck, fucking or fucked at least twenty-five times (each) in the time it takes you to reach the prison. He’ll also tell you he’s ‘not a racist, but…’ while telling you that you’re lucky you didn’t get one of those Indian taxi drivers. Because they can’t drive. And they smell.

As you watch the meter run up a small national debt, you will pass car dealers, fireworks dealers and, eventually, the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility. Sorry…Centre for National Resilience. Business is clearly booming in resilience dealing. Car park full. Gates shut.

Your taxi driver will tell you that it’s not getting into the country that’s the problem. It’s getting out. He’s been waiting for seven weeks to get a flight back to Vietnam to be with his young wife. Fortunately, he took the credit card with him or she’d have spent the lot by now.

It’s dry season in Darwin and out here, away from the irrigated civic landscape of town, the grass is shrivelled, the pandanus fronds brown and crinkled. It’s hot.

The second thing you need to know about visiting a prisoner at the Darwin Correctional Centre is that you have to arrive an hour before your scheduled visit if you are a newbie. You need to have your retinas scanned and your face digitised. Biometric security takes time.

If you have lady-shoulders, you will need to cover them. This surprises you. A sign near the door reminds you of the things that must not be brought into a prison, including guns, drugs and syringes. Less surprising.

What you will notice immediately is the ordinariness, the quotidian pallor, of the visitor waiting room. Just as there were no barbed-wire fences or bluestone ramparts at the prison entrance – Howard Springs frankly looked more impenetrable – there are no six-foot psychopathic attack dogs at the check-in desk.

We have all watched too many prison movies.

AT THE CHECK-IN desk, you will be greeted by a lovely woman with curly grey hair and sparkly blue eyes who calls you darl. Her offsider, a rotund gentleman, will tell you he is about to become a grandfather. The three of you will compare your Covid vaccination status.

The jolly woman will call you darl as she scans your retinas and pixelates your face. You will almost give her your Hollywood smile before remembering that this is a prison and visiting your friend here is not a smiling occasion.

You will put all your belongings in a locker. Everything. You can’t give your friend the photos you’ve brought. Photos of him in better days: on country days, dancing ceremony, playing footy, his kids. You put the photos and your jewellery, along with your phone and backpack, into the locker. You remember to take out your cardigan. You’ll need it to cover your suggestive shoulders.

As the waiting room starts to fill with the repeat visitors who have pre-scanned eyeballs, you will get the queer sensation you’ve been here before. Not deja vu. Just the body memory of every other public waiting room in which you’ve ever waited: hospital, airport, Centrelink. Common people doing common waiting. Little kids playing chasey, rolling on the carpet, being told off by their harried mothers to get up off the floor or else. Old men dozing, upright in their extruded plastic chairs. TV on the wall screening a closed-captioned game show.

One difference: no one will be staring at their phone. The phones are in the lockers, irrelevant, affording no distraction. Undistracted, you notice that the cute little girl tumbling with her brother has a poo in her nappy. It’s hard not to notice. Her mum pretends not to notice; she’s too busy rocking the baby in her arms off to sleep. Three under four.

And then everyone will be up on their feet and surging towards the far end of the room. Clearly, you’re the only one who doesn’t know this drill. Like a flock of well-herded sheep, you all huddle next to an electric sliding door that is opened by the soon-to-be grandfather.

You shuffle into a small antechamber. You number about twenty, not including the whiffy toddlers. There is a camaraderie. One leathery-skinned elderly gentleman reports on the state of his car motor to another lizard-like Territorian. A woman who couldn’t be more than four feet tall asks the young mother whether the baby is feeding better this week.

Without instruction, you divide into three lines behind three sets of green feet painted on the floor. Clown-sized feet. It takes a while for you all to get through the facial recognition machine, which opens a glass door into the eye-scanning Tardis, which in turn magically releases you into another waiting area. Some of you have to take your shoes off because the Tardis has detected metal. The little silver buckle on your sandals.

Prison guards in unisex khaki cargo pants watch the proceedings with the studied detachment of airport security guards. They are patient with the miniature woman who is up on tiptoes on the clown feet to get her face high enough to reach the scanner. Kind to the lanky teenage boy who gets stuck in the Tardis for no reason other than that the universe has chosen to embarrass him further.

Eventually you are all corralled in the final holding pen. A silent guard opens the heavy steel door – no bars; prison bars are for TV prison – and waves you through. You blink into the glaring sunshine and feel the blast of heat as air-con gives way to outdoors.

You walk single file down a road lined with brilliant tropical flowers. All radiant yellow and lush crimson. You flash back to the theme song of that ’80s soapie you used to love: He used to bring me roses / I wish he could again / but that was on the outside / and things were different then.

Different flora; same desolation.

Another mundane brick building looms. Another steel door.

Your little troupe silently disperses, ushered to separate numbered tables in an unadorned room. The young mum takes her brood to an outside bench next to a colourful climbing frame. The poopy-panted girl leaps to the top and throws herself down the slide.

There is mild confusion when somebody else goes to the table with your assigned number. Ah, there’s the problem. Two prisoners with the same surname. Error amended, you’re correctly tabled. A door at the back of the room opens.

And it’s now that shit will get real.

A TIDE OF orange will flood through the door. The prisoners. You will see him, your friend, your beautiful, strong, proud friend, whom you have known for ten years, since he was a bright and buoyant teenager, the best dancer in his community. Your friend is draped in neck-to-toe orange canvas, and your heart stops beating. Just for a second.

A second is long enough to register that no one is playing dress-ups here.

But don’t indulge your beating, breaking heart too long, or you will forget that this is not your story, not your pain, not your trauma; not your six months behind not-bars without a trial, without a trial date, without a bail hearing; not your structural racism that sees the prisons so full that new inmates are right now being held indefinitely at the remand centre because the correctional centre works on a one-out, one-in basis, like a popular nightclub; not your nightmare, where fellow prisoners have weapons and contraband cigarettes and weed and go after snitches; not your plan to just keep your head down, protect your younger cousin, who was locked up with you because he too was there that night, the night when everything went wrong, when generations, centuries, millennia of inter-family feuding collided with another man’s law; when 223 years of someone else doing the dispossessing, taking the traditional lands and smashing the traditional way of life, bringing the diseases and the alcohol, committing the murders, when that legacy became your life; the night when you were the one the police caught and tasered, and your little sons lost their father, their hunter, their teacher, their guide; and the dancing stopped; and the country was out there, and you were in here, in an ill-fitting, unearthly orange jumpsuit, waiting.

The only thing you need to know about visiting a prisoner at the Darwin Correctional Centre is that the prisoner is not you.

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