April 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Wholesome prison blues

By Mahmood Fazal
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The end of Risdon Prison’s Spartan Debating Club, which offered inmates skills for non-violent conflict

From a nearby hill in a public park just north of Hobart, the Risdon Prison Complex appears empty. Cyclists and joggers float by as if the world that festers behind the razor-wire fences doesn’t exist. Tony Bull, a former inmate, has been coming to the park with Princess, his English staffy, for years.

“That’s the old pink palace,” says Bull, pointing at the prison’s first maximum security block. “But there’s no one around. Another lockdown … Prisoners have been spending more time in their cells than the yards these days.”

In the decade to 2020, the rate of offending in Australia dropped by 18 per cent while the rate of imprisonment increased by 25 per cent. In that time, however, the number of people in Tasmanian prisons has exploded by nearly 40 per cent. Two-thirds of Tasmania’s prisoners are recidivists, and half of those who leave prison expect to be homeless.

“It’s always been bad, but it’s at its worst now,” Bull says. “The reason no one does anything about it is because no one knows about it.” The 57-year-old has spent the majority of his life in boys’ homes and prisons. Since his release 15 years ago, he has been advocating on behalf of “voiceless prisoners”.

When Bull arrived at Risdon in the late ’80s, he struggled to articulate himself. “I was extremely shy as a youngster, growing up, right up until I got to jail. Although I had a lot to say, I had trouble putting it into words.”

Another inmate in his unit suggested he join the Spartan Debating Club. “As a superintendent once said to me, the worst thing I ever done was join the debating team, because when I got to jail I wouldn’t open my mouth – now I can’t keep the fucking thing shut.”

The Spartan Debating Club was part of a program initiated by Risdon’s inmates in the late ’60s. “It gave us a respected identity. We thrived on that and the competition. We debated high schools and universities,” says Bull. “Every debating team in Tasmania was part of our roster. We developed a sense of community when there was none for us.

“One of the first topics I ever debated was ‘The Love Boat was a floating brothel’,” he says with a laugh. Although the subject was light-hearted, while writing his notes in a unit filled with some of the state’s most dangerous criminals, Bull was terrified.

“The first debate was scary as, man. Seriously. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done and it was only an internal debate between us guys. I spent a whole week writing my notes. And when I got up I was trying to read my notes and kept getting crossed up. I quickly learnt not to write my notes and just to learn my arguments.”

The Spartan Debating Club became an integral part of the prison system. Prisoners would debate businesspeople, high school students, politicians and academics, who were invited to oratory duels on Friday nights in Risdon’s prison yard, debunking stereotypes while platforming their concerns.

For Bull, being in the club helped him break the cycle of the prison mentality. “It taught me that there’s always the possibility to talk your way out of a situation, [rather] than punch your way out.

“You went from being a prisoner, without a voice – you’ve got fuck all, and you’re ignored 24 hours a day – to being valuable,” says Bull. “You were briefly treated like a human being; you weren’t treated like a prisoner at all. We spoke our stuff and had tea, biscuits, sandwiches and all that stuff after. You got to feel a bit normal through it all.”

In the ’90s, Bull was elected president of the club. He remembers debating members of the Young Liberals with a star of the Spartan Debating Club: Mark “Chopper” Read. “Chopper and I were on the same side and the debate was that we should renew our marriage licences every five years. So, as first speaker, I played Chopper’s wife. I was in a dress and he was in a wedding suit. I got up and bagged on Chopper big time: ‘I can’t wait until the five years are up.’”

While Bull was president of the club, observing the sway and power of argument, his responsibility eventually stretched out of the debating arena and into the politics of the system that confined him.

“As another superintendent said to me once, ‘You’re like the pied piper of these people: you talk and they follow.’ I said, ‘Well, Mr Harris, it’s not what I’m saying, it’s why I’m saying it.’”

One of Bull’s reform campaigns was sparked when Martin Bryant began his sentence at Risdon. The Port Arthur murderer was initially kept in the prison hospital, separate from the other inmates. “The problem was that no one from the yards could go to the hospital for their medications or treatment.”

Bull managed to access a phone, and he recorded an interview with the ABC voicing his concerns for prisoners seeking medical assistance. As a result, he was sent to solitary confinement for 40 days straight.

“It’s a room roughly 8 foot by 4 foot, cut in half by bars. Sometimes they’ll let you out for a walk, depending if they like you or not.” Bull began to realise his voice didn’t amount to anything if he was in a green uniform. Eventually he set his cell on fire in protest, and was lucky to survive.

Over the past two years, prisoners in Tasmania have been facing more lockdowns than ever before, and not because of the pandemic. According to a report from the state’s custodial inspector, the common causes of these lockdowns are “operational requirements” or “staff shortages”. “Too often,” the report says, “the minimum one hour [in open air] is not delivered in contravention of the Corrections Act 1997, basic human rights and inspection standards.”

“Now they’ve shut down the Spartan Debating Club,” says Bull. “There’s no outdoor sports, no programs any prisoners can enrol in. They’re just stuck in lockdown.”

In 2011, the then UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, called all countries to prohibit solitary confinement for prisoners except in exceptional circumstances. He further said that it should be banned for juveniles and people with mental health conditions. Even so, according to advocacy organisation Justice Reform Initiative, more than half the people entering Tasmanian prisons either have a history of mental health conditions or report living with a disability. A state government report found that almost half the people who died by suicide in Tasmania between 2012 and 2018 had contact with police, courts or corrections services during their lifetime. On the same morning that we met in the park, another Risdon inmate committed suicide.

“The management say they want to open new prisons,” says Bull, “but they can’t even staff the ones they’ve got.”

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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