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People in Prison – Stories from the Northern Territory

By Katherine Marchment

This article opens a window into the lives of people in the prison system in the Northern Territory. These are their stories.

A Place to Stay

I was in Katherine for a Fracking Convergence. I met an ex-lifer and his wife, who had also spent time in prison. We talked for a bit. They asked me if I had somewhere to stay. I said I didn’t, so they invited me to stay with them. “You are welcome sister,” they said.

They gave me a bed and a feed. They said I could help myself to anything in the fridge if I felt hungry. We were at their house along with their other guests, black, white and brindle. We played music, looked at photos and cracked jokes. They talked to me about life, their love of their (traditional) country, about jail and parole.

They let me know they didn’t drink alcohol or allow it in their house. Sometimes drunks come round late at night humbugging. They gave me a couple of nullas to protect myself in case I needed it. I knew I was protected and I was safe. They opened my eyes to the human side of the correctional system in the Northern Territory.

Through them, my eyes opened to some of the struggles aboriginal people go through dealing with the Northern Territory correctional system and the police. They know I’m a writer and they want their message to get out there. I’ll do my best to translate their message to me into whitefella lingo so it can reach a wider audience.

Next morning as I was leaving I thanked them for letting me stay. The lifer grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye and repeated “You are welcome in my house sister.” So I have stayed with them on subsequent visits to Katherine and learned a bit more about what it means to be a prisoner and an ex-prisoner in the Northern Territory.

Blood on the Wire

I am friends with another ex lifer who is currently serving five months in prison for breaching parole. I have found him to be a good man. Again I always feel safe and protected around him. He is a funny, witty, intelligent and kind person. A local hero who has achieved notoriety for escaping from maximum security prison twice. His girlfriend has written a book about this: Blood on the Wire by Carolyn Wilkinson. It is a great read.

He asked of me, that if he returned to prison, that I would come in and visit him one time. I looked at him in disbelief and said “but you won’t go back to prison, you haven’t done anything wrong”. Little did I know then about how punitive the Northern Territory Parole Board is for the most minor of parole breaches. Even a person like me who has no criminal record would have trouble staying out of prison living under those parole conditions.

The odds are stacked against ex prisoners trying to stay out of prison and they know it. He joked with me saying that I would find out about him returning to prison from the front page of the NT News.

Vitriol and Revenge

Sure enough, a couple of months later, I found out he had returned to prison from a front page headline in the NT News “Cold Blooded Killer returns to jail”. The comments accompanying the article were full of vitriol and revenge:

“He should never have been let out”

“They should lock him up and throw away the key”.

He may have been a cold-blooded killer 27 years ago when he committed his crime of accessory to murder. However, it just doesn’t gel with my impression of the free man I now knew and I value as my friend.

His parole breach: He was pulled over by police for speeding and they found a cannabis cigarette belonging to his girlfriend in his car – possession. The arresting officer was prepared to let him off. The Parole Board was not. He was sentenced to five months prison for this crime. The irony is that he doesn’t smoke cannabis himself. He is subject to random urine tests for the rest of his life as part of his parole conditions and considers it just not worth the risk.

Jailed for Protecting his Wife

He took me one time to visit another ex lifer friend of his who had offered to take him “on country” for a while to go hunting in the traditional ways. I met this man and his wife. His wife was a very warm gregarious person and did most of the talking. You could see that they were soul mates. She showed me the photos of their wedding that they had done in the whitefella way, although it was held on her traditional country. Beautiful.

We talked about and looked at a lot of art. The two men are both very talented artists and both have had their work featured in exhibitions. We talked about hunting on her traditional land. Both her and her mother offered to take me out with them. We talked a lot about family. And we talked about jail and parole.

This man has returned to jail a few times since being released on parole. He and his wife told me that the last time he went to jail, was because he was protecting his wife and granddaughter and mother in law from a drunken relative who was trying to smash his way into the house. This bloke tried to remove him peacefully first, aware that if he hit anyone he would go back to jail. The intruder slammed a door on his fingers crushing them and broke a couple, so he did hit him, hard. He ended up back in jail for six months.

Life on parole

In the Northern Territory, a lifer once released, is on parole for the rest of his or her life. No other state in Australia does this. The conditions of parole are strict and it is near impossible to stay out of jail no matter how long your good behaviour or how minor a parole breach. The head of the Parole Board is a retired judge. The rest is made up of ex police officers and a victim advocate. No advocate for the prisoner, although a parole officer can make recommendations which are usually ignored. They meet in secret, are accountable to no one, have no contact with the person they are sentencing for a breach. They just send out the “boys” (local police) to go get ‘em – and police officers enjoy going on a hunt.

The Parole Board have their friends and supporters in the media and government. Daryl Manzies: a local shock jock on Territory FM supports and promotes “tough on crime” initiatives on his show such “Mandatory Sentencing” and “Compulsory Tracking Bracelets” for Juveniles released on bail or parole.

Feed ‘em to the Crocodiles!

The NT News publishes the most sensationalist, bloodthirsty headlines that they can think up about those who have committed crimes because it sells newspapers.

In the former CLP government, our Attorney General and Minister for Corrections was an ex police officer. Former police officers have made up our members of parliament here in the Northern Territory for decades. Public opinion is very much conditioned to think in terms of revenge for the latest outrages committed by the local “runamoks”.

Territorians tend not to see those who have committed crime as human. Instead they call for blood:

“Run ‘em over!”

“Lock ‘em up!”

“Shoot the bastards!”

“Feed ‘em to the crocodiles”

There is very little interest here in the Territory to reduce or prevent crime and imprisonment. No surprise that we have the third highest incarceration rate in the world after China and the USA.

The Don Dale Kids

I go to a community centre in Darwin, various people of all ages come in. You can usually pick the Don Dale kids because they are wearing a tracking ankle bracelet, or they are with a minder or both.

I am sitting with three young aboriginal men who served time together in Don Dale.

“Cigarette” one says to me.

“My name is not cigarette” I say to him.

“May I have a cigarette Katherine?” he says, as he has known me for a while and is a regular.

“I will give you a cigarette if you read this,” I say.

“I can’t read,” he snarls at me.

“Yes you can,” I say, “I know you can read”.

I look him in the eye while I am saying this. This is to let him know that I am pissed off about him lying to me.

Reading the Letter

I look at his closed expression and say “It is a letter I have written to the Minister about people in jail, and I just want the opinion of someone who has been there”. “Don’t worry about it,” I say “I will give you a cigarette anyway.”

I gave him some tobacco and we yarn for a bit.

He then says “Ok, I will read your letter for you.”

I pass it across the table to him. He starts to read and the young man sitting next to him reads over his shoulder. The third sitting next to me is watching the other two do this and communicating with them and me using sign/body language.

They both read the whole thing from start to finish. (Asking questions throughout like “What’s recidivism?”) Two of them said I should turn it into a petition and that they would sign. The one reading over the shoulder of the other became visibly upset about my suggestion of compulsory family contact saying “families shouldn’t have contact at all – THESE are my brothers” (meaning his two companions sitting with me). He then changed this to “Well, contact once a month then” when he saw the other two didn’t agree with him. I have no idea what the background is of him or the others or what their crimes were. I just know that they have been in Don Dale. Ankle bracelets advertise it to the whole community and they are pretty defensive as a result. Especially with middle aged white women like me.

A Letter to the NT Attorney General

Before sending this letter to Natasha Fyles NT Attorney General and Minister for Justice, I get one more person to read it. She is a friend of mine who was in jail for three years, is now out and never wants to go back. She read every word intensely, nodding throughout and saying yep, yep at intervals when she reads stuff that resonates with her.

The thing that stood out for her was that prisoners “feel the passing of time more keenly than the rest of us” and “the law of diminishing returns” when it comes to re- imprisoning people.

She knows full well about kids being abandoned once they are in Don Dale. She also requested that I take the points I made in my letter to Minister Fyles and turn them into a petition, so that she and other people can sign.

I guess what I am trying to do is to get people to realise from the above stories that those who commit crime, for whatever reason, are human just like you and me. Those who have been in prison aren’t necessarily bad people. A lot of them are people who made a bad decision when they were young with tragic outcomes for all involved. That jail is hell and they sure as shit have lost the desire to repeat the crimes that got them in there in the first place.


The courts refuse parole to those they consider likely to re-offend and they are still in jail. This is especially and specific to the Northern Territory.

Before his release, my friend went for parole eight times after the end of his sentence. He then managed to stay out of jail for five years under incredibly strict parole conditions, which is quite a feat in the Northern Territory. I think he is the only person who has managed this. He has not committed any kind of violent or property crime. He could hardly be described as a danger to the community anymore. There are still those in the community who call for him to be locked up for the rest of his life. To bill the taxpayer $300,000 pa to keep him in jail for the rest of his life because they don’t like him and haven’t forgiven him for his crime.

How does this benefit the rest of the community? I personally resent my taxes used to pay for a few individual’s need for revenge. We need to create the conditions that make it more desirable and easier not to offend or re-offend. Jails are punishment but they shouldn’t be a form of torture as they are now. The conditions in Northern Territory Jails is a whole story in itself of which the 4 corners program showed us only a glimpse.


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  1. Trish Corry

    A very interesting read Katherine. Thank you.

  2. Kaye Lee

    It is a confronting read because it talks about people who are resigned to mistreatment. There is nothing more soul destroying than injustice over which you have no control. You remind us that they are people trying to lead ordinary lives. One can only imagine what their lives may have been like 25 years ago when they committed a crime but we seem to do nothing to help with rehabilitation and everything to make people live in fear of further punishment.

    Taking the discretion away from judges was a very bad move. I believe there are some at least who would work with the community to find better pathways than locking kids up on remand but they have no choice under the current laws (I may be wrong?)

    I don’t think any of us can understand what this life is like. I can only hope that something gets done with all these inquiries but history makes me hold little hope.

  3. Kaye Lee

    My sister-in-law worked on the Don Dale story. I was horrified to hear of this is the aftermath…..

    SACKED NT Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook — the man who authorised the tear-gassing of youth detainees in their cells and allegedly misled Cabinet about the incident — was appointed to the Parole Board seven months after leaving in disgrace.

    The role means he would have a say in determining whether young offenders at Don Dale and others were released.

    Numerous highly-placed sources indicated that former Corrections Minister John Elferink personally appointed Mr Middlebrook to the position that included travel expenses, accommodation and $1000 per meeting.

    A month later we hear this….

    A juvenile detainee featured in a Four Corners story into youth detention in the Northern Territory, Dylan Voller, has failed in his bid for parole.

    Now I understand this kid is no angel but I wonder how I would have turned out if I was subjected to the treatment he has received. Has the brutality helped in any way? I think not.

  4. Kyran

    It seems really odd to point out this country was established as a penal colony. Yet we persist in our insistence that incarceration is a good thing.
    Our First People pre-existed the Magna Carta. The charter of an, apparently, idiotic notion, A charter of liberties. A charter of ‘due process’. Later defined as ‘Habeas corpus’.
    It is hard to vent, when caught in a maelstrom.
    When ‘politicians’ talk of ‘law and order’, be afraid. Notions such as ‘mandatory sentencing’, ‘three strikes’, ‘juveniles being treated as adults’, become de riguer. I have yet to read any publications that can justify the existence of such notions, yet alone quantify the damage those notions cause. They, the ‘politicians’, are emporer’s without clothes. The ‘separation of powers’. Anyone?
    There is another old latin expression.
    ‘Mens rea’. The capacity to form criminal intent. More than 80% of crimes committed are ‘spur of the moment’. They are impervious to camera’s, death sentences, et al.
    If we continue to use drug abuse (including alcohol) as a criminal offence (as opposed to a medical problem), we are in deep doo-doo.
    What we did, and what we continue to do, to our First People is, IMO. inexcusable. We now extend that courtesy to our new arrivals.
    Habeas Corpus. A writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.
    Good for us. We now have our own penal colonies. To the people detained on Nauru and Manus, IMO, we have let you down. We are, after all, a penal colony. We are destined to protect the coloniser’s.
    Thank you, Ms Marchment. Take care

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