After a walk of around 100 metres they arrived at Mitch’s unit. The heavy steel external door had two horizontal bars across the half window.
The Guard opened this door to access an air lock. Mitch followed the Guard in. Once the outer door closed, the Guard opened a similar door opposite and directed Mitch through into the unit.
The clang of the heavy door behind him sounded his arrival at his housing unit. Mitch tensed up as he took an intimidated first-time look around.
He stood in the ground floor of a large open floor space, fully encircled by cells over two levels. Inmates dressed in green track pants and white t-shirts gathered in groups, or walked freely around this lower floor area.
Laughter, loud talking, the odd shouting and the clattered scattering of pool balls echoed throughout this two-storey open plan room.
The Guard directed Mitch to a Guards’ station; a two metre square open desk area, centrally located in the lower level.
‘Dunne, Mitchell Max…’ Mitch’s escorting Guard said to a colleague in the Guard station.
The Guard at the desk referred to a list on the desk in front of himself. ‘Dunne…Mitchell,’ he said, lifting his stern glower to Mitch, seeking confirmation.
Mitch nodded once. ‘That’s correct,’ he said.
The Guard nodded once to Mitch’s escort. The escorting Guard left the housing unit.
The Guard in the Guard’s station lifted two folded blankets from under the counter and dumped them on the desk.
‘These are your blankets. Pick them up. Follow me.’
Mitch did as instructed. With his blankets held in his extended arms and his black bag on top, they weaved their way across the heavily populated ground floor.
Mitch nervously eyed those in close proximity as he passed. Some nodded muted greetings. Others glared at Mitch, regarding him up and down with a sneer. He tried to disguise his fear.
The Guard led Mitch up a set of metal stairs to the upper level. As they made their way around the elevated walkway, Mitch glanced down to the recreational area on the floor below.
Some inmates sat at round white tables located at either end of the room. Others gathered around the pool table. Some played table tennis, but most stood, or lounged around in groups representative of their ethnicity.
It was evident to Mitch that multiculturalism was alive and well and prospering in Port Philip Prison; at least in his housing unit. How would he fit into this environment?
From what he could see, body image was one clear constant. Many of the inmates in Mitch’s unit, regardless of race, had well developed, heavily tattooed, upper body muscle definition.
The Guard stopped at the only closed cell door. He unlocked it and gestured inside. Mitch paused in the doorway to glance into the small cell.
‘Move inside…’ the Guard directed.
Mitch stepped into his cell. He dumped his bag and blankets on the single, unmade bed. The Guard followed Mitch in.
Once inside the Guard pointed to each item as he identified it. ‘You got ya shower, toilet, hand basin, desk, chair, television, kettle. You got storage shelves over there…keep them clean. There’s an intercom there beside your bed in case you have any problems during the night. It goes to the front desk. And…you got your bed. Any questions?’
Mitch glanced around his one star accommodation. Backpackers were afforded conditions better than this. He shook his head. What the hell am I doing here? ‘No,’ was all he could say.
‘OK.’ The Guard checked his watch. ‘Dinner is in about…fifteen minutes. Lockdown is at six…’ The Guard exited the cell.
The word “lockdown” resonated with Mitch as he glanced around the confined cell with avocado green coloured walls. At least he had natural light from the tall rectangular window with six horizontal steel bars across it, beside his bed.
He moved over and glanced out the window. The glass was dirty, almost opaque from coatings of dirt and dust. His limited view was of a clearing of land in front of a towering wall capped in razor wire.
Mitch fell back onto his bed. The mattress was uncomfortably hard. As he sat, reality started to sink in. This was where he would be living for who knows how long. This was where he would spend his time locked up like a caged animal. Being told when to eat, when to sleep and when to wake up would be difficult to get used to.
He cupped his face in his hands. Such was his fear, he wanted to cry. He resisted. He stood from his bed and tried to compose himself. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, which was actually a flat highly polished piece of sheet metal—no glass. The black rings under his eyes looked like he hadn’t slept for a week.
Mitch noticed a flow of inmates passing his open cell door, all heading in the same direction. One inmate paused at Mitch’s door and said, ‘Chow time Mate…’ then kept walking.
Mitch didn’t know where to go so he quickly followed the stream of foot traffic down to the kitchen servery area.
He was one of the last to join the long, single file queue of prisoners waiting to be served their dinner. Despite these uncomfortable and foreign surroundings, he still had an appetite and something smelt good. Maybe his hunger masked the melting pot of emotions engulfing his body.
He glanced around the tea room while he waited in line. The noise in the room was deafening. Everybody talked at elevated levels. Then there was the raucous laughter, shouted cursing, abuse and ridicule thrown around. It was a cacophony of offensive sounds; part hen house, part Saturday night bar room.
Mitch was pleasantly surprised when he reached his turn to be served. Lasagne with quite a chunky meat sauce, was on the menu. It looked edible. Shredded cheese was sprinkled on top and he was asked if wanted salad with his meal. He did.
He was surprised to see the meals were served on china plates and not those plastic trays you see in the movies. This surprised Mitch. A shard from a broken plate could potentially become a lethal weapon. Cutlery of course, was plastic.
Mitch grabbed himself a flavoured milk and made his way towards the seats in the tea room. He stood at the entry area to survey the room. Most inmates sat in groups. They all appeared to know each other.
What was the etiquette here? Do you sidle up to a spare seat at any table and sit? Do you have to be part of the group to sit at a particular table? Do you have to be invited to sit? This was all too confusing. He had a lot to learn about the unwritten prison etiquette, the expectations and any internal social hierarchy he should know about.
Mitch’s wandering glances stopped at three inmates seated at a table off to the side. He estimated each was in their late thirties. Most inmates in the tea room were focussed on their food, or were loudly interacting with their table companions. However like Mitch, these three were uncomfortable in this environment and were more focussed on what happened in the room around them.
This suggested to Mitch they too were recent arrivals. He exhaled. The tension in his shoulders relaxed slightly as he moved over and placed his food tray at a spare seat at their table. He sat opposite the three men who sat in a row on the same side of the table. Mitch exchanged a silent head nod greeting. The three men eyed Mitch in silence as he slid into his seat.
Unlike the offensive loud din generated from the rest of the tables, this table was silent. Silence suited Mitch.
He had almost finished his Lasagne when he caught the eye of one of the inmates from his table looking at him.
‘You new…?’ the man said in between shovelling food into his mouth.
Sitting at the left hand end of the three inmates, the inmate who spoke had closely shaven brown hair over a long thin face. He talked out the side of his mouth.
Mitch eyed the three men sitting opposite him. Each had paused their eating and stared back at Mitch with raised eyebrows, apparently eager to hear his response.
‘Yep,’ he said then continued eating. He figured when it came to personal information, less was best.
‘Fucken scary, ain’t it…’ the same man said. ‘I mean, when you first arrive here.’ His companions nodded their support as they ate.
‘Takes a bit of getting used to…’ Mitch said. ‘What about you… have you recently arrived here?’
The inmate pointed to the man seated furthest from him. ‘Four days…’ He pointed to the man seated beside him. ‘Eight days and I’ve been here ten days.’
Mitch nodded. There was a strange comfort being in the company of recent arrivals like himself. They were probably not people he would associate with on the outside, but in here, he had to recalibrate his standards.
’Wait ‘till you get locked down on the first night…’ the man said. ‘It’s the worst…hearing that cell door close and lock, knowing you are in there for the next twelve hours until morning.’
Mitch nodded as he kept eating. He was not looking forward to experiencing that.
‘Clearly, groups are a big thing inside…’ Mitch said as a question.
The side talker replied. He must’ve been the spokesperson of the group. ‘If you look around, but don’t make eye contact, you will see they gravitate to their own people. Turks, Asians, Islanders, Greeks, Italians, even the Sudanese keep together. But the Muslims are probably the largest ethnic group in here.’
Hearing the word Sudanese made Mitch cringe slightly. Images from that night flashed into his mind’s eye. He surveyed the room searching for any African appearing inmates. It was because of those crooks he lost his father. It was because of those crooks he had been snatched from the normality of his life and wound up in here. His quick scan failed to locate any African appearing inmates.
‘What about Caucasians…’ Mitch said. ‘Do they group together?’
‘Not so much. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing. I dunno,’ the man said.
‘You’ve picked all this up and you’ve only been here ten days…?’ Mitch said.
‘You learn pretty quickly,’ the man said. ‘They look out for their own, so if you upset one, you upset the whole group. I don’t know how long you got… but you just want to do your time with minimum fuss, while trying to avoid being put in hospital… or worse. You know what I’m sayin’…?’
‘I do. That suits me fine,’ Mitch said.
A loud, flat alarm tone sounded for about two seconds. This was immediately followed by an announcement over the PA. ‘Head count in ten minutes. All inmates return to your cells now. Repeat, Head count in ten minutes. Return to your cell,’ the announcement said.
‘Head count...?’ Mitch said.
The spokesperson of the group nodded. ‘Yep we get counted four times a day. You have to stand at your cell door while they check you off. This one though, is the head count before lock down,’ he said.
Mitch joined the single file of foot traffic up the stairs to the cells on level one. Each cell he passed had an inmate standing by the open door way, like baby Penguins in the wild, waiting for its mum to return with food.
One-by-one the Guards, working in pairs, moved along the cells, crossing off names and locking inmates inside. Mitch watched them approach. When his turn came the Guard with the clipboard crossed Mitch off the list.
The other Guard flicked a hand at the open door. Mitch entered his cell. The heavy metal door clanged behind him, followed by the sound of latches and locks; a constant reminder of his lost liberties.
Mitch stood near the doorway of his new home. He looked around at the depressing sight before him. He was all alone; isolated from the world. This was only his first night here. How would he cope with this life for the next three months?
Ten minutes after lockdown the lights went out. Mitch was only half way through making his bed. The small wall mounted reading light above his pillow provided sufficient light to complete his task.
The free to air channels on the old school style portable TV provided some distraction to being locked up, but it didn’t take long for his thoughts to shift to his wife, Alison. How was she spending her first night without him? She would be worried about him and how he was coping in jail.
Mitch paced the floor of his small cell. His mind raced. It was incredibly frustrating not being able to pick up a phone and call her, to put her mind at ease and tell her he is doing OK, even if it was a lie.
To the average punter, their exposure to prison was solely limited to what they saw on TV and in the movies. Alison and Mitch were no exceptions. Alison would be worried for his safety. She would be worried he was not attacked and beaten, or raped, or both.
It was eerie, even a little intimidating, lying on his bed listening to the inmates yelling from their cells. The sounds seemed to echo from outside. Some shouted expletive filled abuse, some were calling to other inmates, while others were just making wolf call sounds.
Mitch’s last thoughts before he nodded off to sleep were about a clearly broken justice system that sent people like him to jail for defending himself against violent home invaders.
To Mitch it made no sense. It was a justice system that didn’t take into account his clean record from a life spent abiding by the law. It didn’t take into account the trauma Mitch experienced from watching his father being murdered. And it certainly didn’t appear to follow the presumption of innocence, where everyone is innocent until proven guilty, beyond all reasonable doubt.
How could it? He hasn’t even been tried, yet it was still acceptable under our justice system to lock him up in a maximum security prison with some of the most violent and evil people in this state. It was an anomaly that he just didn’t understand and probably never would.