NO DNA TESTING! And other jail tales

by Ciaron O’Reilly

My second to last day in jail I was playing cards with Andy through the bars of the punishment block and the entrance to the isolation section. Andy, stashed far from view, has mythological status in the jail. He’s a serial killer and has been in the Northern Territory prison system for 17 years with a history of violence inside prison and a recently trashed out cell in the isolation block. He is ex-military, has ‘Apocalypse Now’ tattooed to his bicep and is interested in discussing wars and prisons. I’m giving him the pacifist perspective on these two foundation stones of state and empire when my name is barked out over the intercom. I’m ordered down a passage through three security doors and find myself in front of two senior officers seated behind a desk. Another officer behind me reads out the charge of ‘being a threat to the good order of the prison’. It feels like a graduation ceremony.

A week earlier I had been working in the laundry wearing the status of a low security prisoner when a guard and nurse arrived demanding DNA samples. This was the final psychic straw. Over the previous months I had a growing sense of spiritual possession by the institution – as though I was internalising the vibe of the jail. Its spirits of resignation, despair, cynicism, doing your own time weighed heavy and enveloped my spirit. Over the last month a growing sense of rage was running on a parallel track. Rage ignited by the death in custody of an aboriginal youth in the adjoining facility and the well-publicised mandatory sentencing of an aboriginal man to a year in jail for stealing cordial and biscuits from a mining company. Also living on my block were two aboriginal men serving one year mandatory sentences for stealing a towel off a clothes line and the other for breaking a fluorescent light while being held in custody. I was also being increasingly impacted by the three lifers I was living and working with – acknowledging that they would be waking up to the systematic negligence of this dump long after my time was up. Each day I would stare across from the laundry to the administration block and more often than not the only white faces would be in uniform. The systematic racism of this jail with over 90% of the prison population being aboriginal people and poverty-stricken Indonesian fishermen was clearly apparent.

Demanding our DNA seemed like the final expression of omnipotence of this State and the coming technocratic fascism railed against tribal peoples, the poor and the dissident. A process posing the apocalyptic question ‘Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?’ (Revelation 13:4). I told the nurse that my DNA was between me and God and not the Northern Territory State and its racist policing apparatus. She said she ‘didn’t care’ and I had to hand it over. I told her she was part of the ‘caring professions’ and she should develop some ethics soon as they may have her ‘lethally injecting’ before too long, the way things were developing up here (in the NT)! The guard said he ‘didn’t care’ and he was going to get the Dog Squad to force me to give my DNA.

A little while later, the Yard Chief turned up and told me I had to give my DNA. I told him there was a huge civil liberties debate raging in New South Wales over DNA sampling and Victorian prisoners were refusing to co-operate with it and that there hadn’t been enough of a debate about the issue in the Northern Territory. He said he ‘didn’t care.’

All the staff who dealt with me came out with this stock phrase early in the discourse. Truly, indifference is worn like a badge of honour in White Australia; apathy remains the friend of fascism and the vigorous enemy of love and compassion. The Yard Chief said when he could round up more officers, he would return to drag me to the Medical Centre and take my DNA by force. When he left I ripped a cardboard box in the laundry and wrote up a sign reading, ‘NO DNA TESTING, NO MANDATORY SENTENCING, PRISONS ARE THE CRIME!’ I followed the next laundry trolley out and made for the Administration Block. With my back to the Administration Block and facing the kitchen I knelt down, held up the sign and began speaking about how governments and corporations are the real criminals in our society and how they deal in high crimes of violence, theft, traffic of dangerous substances on a wholesale scale. I spoke of how Berrimah Prison is a racist institution. A lot of the prisoners working in the kitchen stopped work and listened through the bars. Speaking some truth in this place of lies felt liberating; I could feel the vibe of the institution lifting. After a while an officer approached me, took my sign and said, ‘Where are you supposed to be?’ I felt free from the lie and answered him as honestly as I could: ‘I’m supposed to be on the outside being congratulated for putting uranium mining equipment out of action and resisting nuclear war preparations!’

‘You’re supposed to be in the laundry!’

‘I’ve resigned!’

Three officers took hold of me and led me to the punishment block, strip searched me, eight staff came in, I went limp, they took my DNA and I jumped from a C1 to an A1 on the security ranking charts. Any further and I’d be bunking down the back with Andy.

So a week later at my Kangaroo Court hearing, I tried to tease out the notion of what ‘good order’ could mean for this institution and how my nonviolent actions were enhancing it. I wanted to tell them about being in Boggo Rd Jail (Brisbane) in 1988, when five prisoners climbed on the roof and fasted for two weeks in the heat and rain and how that similar action had initiated the Kennedy Inquiry, reform of Queensland prisons, better working conditions for staff and living conditions for prisoners. But they didn’t want to listen, said they ‘didn’t care’, and that’s how I graduated with the honour of being a ‘threat to the good order of Berrimah Prison.’ I went back to cards with Andy who told me how three Superintendents who had tried to introduce reforms in the past had all been chased out of their jobs and the Territory by the Screws Union. Andy went back to his isolation unit, out of sight around the corner and a few days after my release Australia became the first western country summoned to Geneva to answer inquiries about racial policies in relation to mandatory sentencing and extreme rates of indigenous incarceration.

Ciaron O’Reilly was a member of the Christchurch Catholic Worker in 1993. He and Treena Lentall formed the Jabiluka Ploughshares community that disabled uranium mining equipment at the Jabiluka mine site in the Northern Territory of Australia on Nagasaki Day 1998. They were remanded in custody and spent a further 67 days in Berrimah Jail, Darwin, for refusal to pay restitution. They were released on March 23 2000.

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