He had a long grey ponytail that was even longer than mine. He wore lots of jewelry and was the most sarcastic person I’ve met in a while. He had a normal name, the sort of name your Dad would have. He was funny and friendly, not unlike a Dad.
He’d stand out in a crowd, but not because he was creepy. He was eccentric.
He has been a truck driver, worked with homeless kids and been involved in the creation of state-wide legislation. He seemed like a pretty interesting, funny, intelligent and considerate guy.
We’d been with him for about 40 minutes, and I’d pushed my wondering and my questions to the back of my mind. Then someone asked what I’m pretty sure we’d all been dying to ask, but weren’t sure if we were allowed to.
“So… What exactly were you convicted of?”
There wasn’t even time for a dramatic pause, he didn’t hesitate in his response. Maybe he was so used to the question. Maybe he didn’t want us to be afraid of the answer.
“Murder. Maximum sentence then, so I did life.”
I’m grateful that I was standing behind him, so he couldn’t see my expression. Like how it’s always better to find out about your friend’s surprise pregnancy on Facebook rather than face-to-face, so you don’t give away your true feelings about it.
To be totally fair, I wasn’t that shocked by what he had said, I had a suspicion. We were in a prison after all.
Alas, it was similar to being pretty sure someone hacked into your bank account. After seeing all the thousand dollar transfers to people you’ve never heard of, you’re prepared to hear the bank say, “Yes, I’m sorry your money is all gone.” But it’s still a shock to hear it out loud: to hear your hunch being confirmed.
The prison was closed in the nineties. This was mainly because it was in a suburban area and they finally caught onto the fact that normal people living in normal houses didn’t want to look out their back window and look at a prison. Filled with all sorts of bad people. Filled with murderers. Like this guy.
We knew an ex-inmate or ex-prison officer would conduct the tour. I assumed there would be more of the latter who A) wanted to work there and B) were allowed to work there.
He was upfront when we met, telling us how long he was an inmate here, and how long he was at the prison he transferred to afterwards.
For how long he was in jail, it was clear that he had either done some kind-of-bad things many times, or he had done one really bad thing. But he was just so nice, you know? Surely it was just robbery or drugs, not something serious.
He told us about the terrible conditions. Three grown men to a cell that was smaller than most bathrooms, with one concrete slab serving as a bed. The prison officers who would abuse and murder inmates. What you could get if you were willing to trade a packet of tobacco. How they would blow up garbage bags and put them in bins to cover all the homemade alcohol lying underneath it. How the only medical treatment received, even for a broken leg, was Panadol. How 100 or more men would be crammed into a small ‘open’ space for most hours of the day. How you had to wait in line with the 100 other men to shower in the one ‘bathroom’ they had. Then there was the dentist who would give drugs and alcohol to anyone who asked, which could be considered a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
It reminded me of watching The Longest Yard, or The Green Mile. You start to feel sorry for them… And then you feel bad about it because they’re criminals. Should you feel bad for them? When innocent people’s lives have been ruined, or taken from them, don’t these individuals deserve what they’re getting?
Our guide, the murderer, experienced some horrible things for many, many years. But he took a life. And that person’s family and friends had to say goodbye to them, likely far too soon.
To put your mind somewhat at ease, he will be on parole for the rest of his life. He will complete drug tests every month and report to the parole board every two months.
However, that doesn’t change what he did. But being ‘free’ doesn’t erase his memories of what he experienced. And all this doesn’t change the fact that as a human being, I liked him. And that’s what is most confounding.