Monday, November 12, 2012
A night in jail with Wayne and Mike from Malta
One of my cellmates is Mick from Malta - a hyperactive 42 year old covered in tatts, with a palid junkie’s complexion, ‘hanging out’ for whatever his drug of addiction right now is. Mick has been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend.
The other is Wayne, 32, a handsome lean muscular Aboriginal “born and bred in Redfern.” He’s been arrested for ‘Failure to Report’. “Failure to report for what?” I ask. Wayne looks at me for a long moment, directly, right into my eyes. “I’m a searcher,” he replies.
For a moment (a very brief one) it occurs to me that Wayne may be on a metaphysical quest of some kind (searching for the meaning of life?) but the look that passes between him and Mike suggests otherwise. “Searcher?” I ask, hoping for a bit more information but not wanting to reveal just how ignorant I am of this piece of contemporary urban jargon. Wayne rubs his fingers together in a money gesture and flashes a broken-toothed smile. Mike nods, smiles knowingly. “Looking for those beautiful $50 and $100 notes,” he says.
Wayne is a professional thief. A searcher. He has a girlfriend and a four year old daughter and is a man of few words. His most distinguishing feature is intelligent eyes that never leave my own as we talk. He is as curious about me and the world I come from as I am about him and the world he comes from. “What kind of movies do you make?” he asks. “What kind of crimes do you commit,” I ask. Wayne hesitates for a long moment before replying. This is his way. He’s in no hurry. And he looks directly at me as he formulates his answer. “I’ve got 400 charges,” he says. “What kind of charges?” I ask. Again that long pause before he answers, his eyes on mine. “Bad stuff,” he says. He looks directly at me. I am not sure if he wants me to ask him what sort of ‘bad stuff’ or if he just wants to leave it at that. I decide just to leave it at that. Wayne calls me ‘Old Fella’, which I find endearing.
Mike from Malta, looks like a gangster in a Tarantino or Scorcese movie - short, muscular, covers in tatts, filled with nervous energy, pacing up and down the cell like a caged tiger. First impression: steer clear of Mike. He’s trouble. First impressions can be wrong. I know that, but still can’t help but be influenced by them. That he has been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend doesn’t help as a first impression but when Mike takes off his shirt and shows me the deep bloody scratch marks on his back, I entertain the possibility that there might be to his assault charge than meets the eye. As Mike tells it, his girlfriend, stoned on pills, attacked him and he was just defending himself when he grabbed her around the neck. His girlfriend is only 27, has two kids that have been taken off her because she is ‘a druggie.’ Mike says he doesn’t even particularly like his girlfriend. Why, I wonder aloud, is he going out with a woman he doesn’t particularly like, who attacks him and leaves deep scratch marks on his back? “We have great sex,” Mike replies. “And she’s 27 and I’m 42!” He smiles and shrugs as he says this, as though, at age 42, the opportunity to have sex with a 27 year old is too good an opportunity to pass up.
In a separate conversation, about his drugs of addiction, Mike tells me that whilst he hates ‘ice’ because it makes him hyper and crazy, he loves it too because he and his girlfriend to have “great sex” when stoned on it. “It’s true! Fucking on ice is fucking unbelievable,” says Mike, his face breaking into a smile as memories of great sex kick in.
Mike reckons that the gateway to his drug addiction was cigarettes at the age of 14, followed by smoking dope and then progressing onto any and every other drug he could lay his hands on. His track-marked arms bear witness to the number of needles that have been jabbed into them over the years. He was clean for seven years straight one time and wants to be clean again; wants to go into rehab but says the government is closing rehab centres and its getting more and more difficult to get into them if you don’t have any money. Mike tells me that for him the easiest drug go come off is heroin and the hardest, alcohol. “You get the horrors for five days coming off heroin but they go on for months coming off the grog,” he tells me.
The never ending sound track of this prison experience is the TV - set high in a corner. As I was being processed,w hen I arrived, I asked if I could take my book into the cell with me. “No books allowed in cells,” I was told. “Why?” I asked. “No books,” came the surly reply, “but you’ve got TV.” Well, that’s better than nothing, I thought - until I discovered that the TV is stuck on channel 9. The following morning I had to endure the Today Show and Gilligan’s Island re-runs - probably the worst part of being in jail!
“Hey, bro, you know my cousin Charlene from Maroubra,” shouts Wayne from his rubber mattress on the floor to the two Aboriginal brothers in a cell on the other side of the corridor - one arrested for ‘Goods in Custody’ and the other on ‘GBH’ (Grievous Bodily Harm). “Yeah, cuz, my sister’s going with her brother,” comes back the reply. “You heard she necked herself in the park at Malabar?” shouts Wayne “Shit, she OK?” “Nah,” replies Wayne. “Rope cut the oxygen off from her brain and she’s brain dead but they haven’t turned her life support off yet.” “Shit!” There is a matter-of-factness to the conversation about Charlene but I sense that Wayne is pretty upset about it but doesn’t want to show it. I sense that Wayne is quite bright also, though lacking in education. I want to find out more about him but only at a rate he feels comfortable with. I don’t want to come on too strong with questions.
Wayne and Mike (and the blackfellas across the corridor) can't wrap their heads around the idea that I am in jail for trespassing. No GBH, no goods in Custody, no failure to report, no Assault - just sitting in a foyer minding my own business! I feel a failure as a criminal! I have no street cred at all!
I awake in the middle of the night on my rubber mat to see Wayne standing naked close to the toilet. I turn over to give him some privacy, wondering as I lie with my face to the wall why he has taken all of his clothes off. In the morning I discover that the toilet is blocked with Wayne’s red jockettes. “Are these yours,” I ask him. “Probably,” he replies in a tone of voice that does not invite further questioning. So, now I am in a cell with an open-plan toilet, no toilet paper and bowl blocked with a pair of red jockettes! I press the buzzer connecting the cells to the warders’ station and alert them to the problem of the blocked toilet and ask if we could please have some toilet paper. A few minutes later a small box of loose leaf tissues is slid under the door. The gap between the bottom of the door and the floor is wide enough for all sorts of things to be slid into the cell, including food - thus saving the warders the trouble of unlocking the door. With repeated flushes Wayne’s red jockettes eventually disappear from the toilet bowl.
I learn fast that the interests of the inmates count for little compared with the interests of the warders! I don’t know how much these guys (and gals) earn but not a lot it seems, if the calibre of officer on duty whilst I was incarcerated is anything to go by.
“Hey Chief,” Mike shouts out to a bald warder passing by, “you got the time?” The warder’s response is, “What does it matter.” “Hey, Chief,” replies Mike, keeping calm and trying to be as friendly as he can, “I just want to know what the time is and you’ve got a watch on your wrist and..hey, can’t you just tell me the time?” “No,” replies the warder as he walks off. Mike has a short fuse and knows that he is being wound up by the warder. He tries to remain calm but I can see, from the way he is pacing the cell, that he is not.
Mike wants to know the time is because he has been granted bail by the court (the session held via a video link) but needs to call his mother and get her to go $500 surety for him. All she has to do is sign a form and he’s out on bail. He is very happy about this because, apart from hating it in jail, he is ‘hanging out’ and needs to score. He has to call his mother, however, and ask her to go to a local police station and sign the surety form. And to make a phone call a warder needs to take him from the cell up to reception. He has been buzzing the warders every half hour for a couple of hours now, being as polite as he possibly can be, asking them to let him make his phone call. “We’re busy,” comes the reply. I find out later, when I find myself sitting in the reception area waiting to go into court (via video link) that they are not busy at all but sitting around talking - most of it complaining about their work conditions and how their union should do something about them.
Six hours after he has been released by the court on bail, Mike has still not been allowed to make his phone call. He becomes increasingly agitated as time passes and starts to vacillate between being as polite as possible (“Please Chief, can I make that phone call?”) and anger. “You fucking bitch slag!” he shouts into the speaker when one of the women warders tells him for the umpteenth time that they are busy. “Mike, they are just winding you up,” I say, “but you’re not going to get your phone call if you call the warder a fucking bitch slag.” Mike nods, tries to control his temper. And paces.
Corrective Services must be a dream job for anyone who gets off exerting power over people even less powerless than them. Not all of the warders on duty during my stay, of course, but enough to wind up prisoners who are hanging out (for drugs) and who have difficulties with people in positions of power anyway. Another interesting little lesson I learnt is that once you are a prisoner it doesn’t matter to the warders whether you are in for murder or for trespassing. In the eyes of the warders you are just a prisoner. The lowest of the low. Rarely in my life have I felt as powerless as this. What must it be like, I wonder, to live the bulk of one’s life this way - subject to the whim of others.
Mike paces up and down nervously for a long while after his ‘fucking bitch slag’ outburst, casting occasional glances at me. He stops, walks up to me, looks me in the eye and says, “Will you go surety for me? Five hundred bucks. You don’t have to give em any money. Just surety. I won’t fuck you over, James, I promise. All you’ve got to do when you get out is sign the form and...”
At this point I did not have bail but figured I probably would get it - trespassing not being amongst the most heinous of crimes. “Sure,” I said. “You will!?” says Mike, his face breaking into a smile. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I had suddenly become a significant figure in Mike’s life and, by default, he in mine!
To be continued...