Inside Outsider

The Revealing Poetry of Victoria’s Most Dangerous Prisoner

Matthew "The General" Johnson killed Carl Williams in prison. He also writes poetry and runs Victoria's most violent prison gang, the "Prisoners of War."
September 25, 2018, 5:46am
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On 19 April 2010, Matthew Johnson clubbed Carl Williams to death with the adjustable seat stem from an exercise bike. When police later watched CCTV footage of the event, Johnson appeared monumental in stature, his hulking frame, shaved head and tense posture, all asserting jail yard dominance. Then, during his first police interview he sat pensive but deadpan, arms folded. The only words he uttered were, “I acted alone.”

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Johnson’s rise to prominence in Barwon prison had little to do with his criminal repertoire, which boasts a prolific 167 convictions. After conversations with multiple prisoners who have served time with Johnson, who they religiously refer to as “The General,” I was told that his edge was because he was “good at doing jail.”

To prosper on the prison yard, you have to tune into an archaic and treacherous state-of-mind that, prisoners argue, is a byproduct of the corrective institution. I wanted to know how decades of imprisonment fuelled paranoia, contempt, and hate, shaped Victoria’s most violent prisoner. And the clues were in a series of revealing poems he typed on a computer, in the lonely bunker of his supermax prison cell.

The poems were forwarded to me by a member of Matthew Johnsons gang, The Prisoners of War (P.O.W). Writing poetry may seem like a romantic past-time for us in the “real world,” but inmates find the form therapeutic, it helps them gather their thoughts in a sentimental format that is easy to put together but difficult to pull off. Matthew Johnson’s personal story gives his poems an erratic ambience that sits halfway between comedy and nightmare. The poems read as if he is talking at you. He isn’t evoking ideas, he’s provoking them.

“THIS PLACE”
Camera’s and bars in every cell,
In this hell, where few dwell,
At any second the walls could close,
Bashed and prodded in a cell with no clothes,
My own voice and echoes my only friends,
My own friendship never bends,
Is this pain I feel as my lungs heave,
Because of the toxins I’m forced to breath,
I was left, some thought, with nothing to believe,
Only pain, at the hand of filth, to receive,
I’ve been gassed and all the rest in this place,
But every time I laugh and spit blood in there face,
Some say I crazy, but it’s my will to survive,
I’ll hold my head high until the day I die,
I outlived Carl and you all know why,
Anger manifests into an uncontrollable rage,
I’m a starved demon being poked in a cage,
Now this evil, it won’t leave my face,
It isn’t me, but this soul killing jungle of a place.

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I read page after page of Johnson’s poems, most of which were either dictated over the phone or sent as gifts to his family and friends. His larrikin writing style is stern, impulsive and jovial. The themes shift between heartfelt interrogations of life in prison, justifications for murdering Carl Williams and bizarre takedowns of Chopper Read and crime writer John Silvester. The poems share a sentiment that is laced with misfortune and isolation, but read like uncanny confessions from a broken man.

Johnson’s father died when he was just six years old. His brother Brett was born 14 weeks premature, and developed cerebral palsy. His stepfather, Wayne Johnson, was described in court as an aggressive alcoholic that abused him. When Johnson’s mother married again, his step-dad ran away with his own niece.

Since the age of 15, Johnson had been a regular at youth training centres and prison, for stealing cars, home invasions and possession of illegal weapons. Every morning he would travel via public transport from his mother’s commission flat in Dandenong to a school for at risk youths in St Kilda. He stopped going to school in year 10 and graduated to violent “run-through” home invasions of drug dealer, catching cases throughout the south-eastern suburbs; Keysborough, Doveton and Springvale.

But it was when he stepped into Pentridge prison, at the youthful age of 17, that Johnson discovered order. His life is a testament to how institutional order breeds chaos.

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“MY CELL”
From my window I see the wall,
At night even some stars,

No grass, no tree’s, nothing green,
Only razor, wire and bars
This is my houses, it’s cleanly kept,
Im sure past tenants have laid and wept,
I have a bed, shower, a chair to sit,
I eat 2 metres from where I shit,
In winter it’s cold, in summer too hot,\
But this is my house, it’s all I’ve got,
I have a TV, computer, a radio too,
Even got room service,
With servants in blue,
This really isn’t all too bad,
I’m happy to hang around,
Better to live in this little cell,
Than a gold plated casket underground

Pentridge was officially closed in 1997, but while in operation it was Victoria’s most horrific prison. Inmates detailed the rampant sexual abuse, high suicide rates and regular stabbings. Johnson’s former barrister, Geoffrey Steward asked The Age, “In the Pentridge remand yard at 17…what hope did the bloke have?” He shaved his head and climatised.

Sources from Barwon prison told VICE the culture in Acacia unit isn’t much different to the social dynamic of Pentridge. “If anything it’s worse, the young guys look up to older fellas who are never to be released and soak it all in. They soak in the jail attitude,” said Mark, who served five years in Acacia, “What you call paranoia, we call politics. The political thinking that has been passed down for generations.”

I remember the first time I visited the supermax Acacia unit in Barwon prison. I was drug tested before I was allowed to approach the desk. I was strip searched. Escorted by two guards to Acacia, a prison within a prison. Searched again. Escorted to a booth, where I waited for my visit behind reinforced glass. The scariest thing about Acacia was the silence, as though you were in a soundproof room, and everything felt hollow. Etched into the wood panels of the visitors box were the letters; P.O.W (Prisoners of War). Like tattoos on the institution itself, the gang embodies the spirit of a place they’ve left their mark on forever, as much as it has on them.

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“STILL A NICE GUY”
The teachers were my enemy,
I truly did hate school,
I battled with the headmaster,
He was just an old fool,
As I got older, I stole and robbed,
The coppers have always hated me,
Because I never once dobbed,
So I did me some time, and learnt me a trade,
I’d rob and torture drug dealers,
With a gun and a blade,
I hated the poison peddlers,
For me they were fair game,
So when I kicked down the door,
There chosen trade was to blame,
I loved my new job, just me and my gun,
I chose my own hours,
Work was much fun,
I showed the peddlers no mercy,
To inflict pain I was far from shy,
But with all that said and done,
I’m still a nice guy.

The P.O.W’s have been infamous since 2000, when six members were sentenced for the brutal bashing of contract-killer Gregory John Brazel. But it wasn’t the attack that gave them notoriety, it was the court proceedings which have been described as “the trial from Hell.”

The P.O.W’s bashed Gregory John Brazel because he was rumoured to be cooperating with authorities. Later that year, Brazel gave evidence against the P.O.W’s, who proceeded to turn the court into a circus. They hurled insults at the judge, called Brazel a “necrophiliac dog,” threw a bag of excrement at the jurors, loudly sang the Collingwood Magpies theme song, and repeatedly performed the mexican wave as they flashed and farted into the court microphone.

This event was a rare glimpse into the resentful attitude that ferments among prisoners who have been buried by the law. The system had become a joke to Johnson and his P.O.W comrades because the paranoia that prison breeds never matched up to any textbook strategy for rehabilitation.

“P.O.W”
Prison is the jungle and only the strongest can survive,
A place where the most vicious rise to the top of the food chain and thrive,
Problems are solved with mayhem and violence,
Surrounded by concrete and a code of silence,
People live and people die,
We operate on an eye for an eye,
We do what we do and we live another day,
We have no limits to our violence,
It’s the P.O.W way,
Behind the concrete we fight a war,
Action can erupt one step past the cell door,
We bash, stab, and slash,
Out battles are not fought over race or cash,
We go on missions and install fear,
We are the prisoners of war,
And our objectives crystal clear!

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When Johnson was released for a few months in 2007, he carjacked a woman and her daughter, as they sat in the McDonalds car park in Doveton. As Johnson waved a gun in her face, his co-accused strangled the daughter before taking off in their car to stand over a drug dealer. But what they thought was the home of a drug dealer was actually a random couple, who were terrorised with guns and robbed.

While released, Johnson was accused of shooting dead 18-year-old Bryan Conyers over a $50 debt. His housemate, Timothy Prentice, told the court that Johnson had given Bryan $50 to buy cannabis, and Bryan never returned with the goods. When Bryan turned up to Johnson’s home in Berwick without the money or cannabis, he was shot in the chest with a 9mm Luger. The weapon dropped out of Johnsons pants during a routine search in Glen Iris station. He was acquitted of the murder after the jury deliberated for 27 hours.

An ex-prisoner, who was jailed in the same unit as Johnson, told VICE about his notorious reputation; “there was a time when even the governor of Barwon would nod at MJ every morning and call him ‘the General.’” And in a letter to hit-man Ange Goussis, Johnson wrote, ''I am the true General so I must keep things in good order true? I love this shit.

“32 TO LIFE”
An open mind in a shut down place,
Evil thoughts, deadly intentions hidden behind a smiling face,
The fuse is lit, it’s length nobody knows,
Batten down the hatches, run for cover when it blows,
32 years just for protecting myself,
Stored away in a human warehouse like a dusty old book on a shelf,
Things could be worse, maybe I could be dead,
Better to be here, than on the floor with a hole in my head,
So this is my life, right up until I’m old,
The joint is designed to make good men turn cold,
I’ll never break, i’ll never let the system win,
I got 32 years to life, for just one sin.

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The order he was referring to was the disapproval of Carl Williams relationship with the Victoria police. Carl had become an informant for the police who had plans to expose corruption in the highest levels of the Victorian police. On April 19, 2010, Johnson had read a front page article in the Herald Sun that detailed the benefits Williams was receiving for his police co-operation.

In prison, being a police informant or a “dog,” immediately qualifies you for merciless attacks from the mainstream prison population. An inmate of Johnson’s stature would never be forgiven by the constant chatter of the prison walls if he didn’t do something about the dog in his yard, especially when he was being blatantly reminded of the situation on the front page of the Herald Sun.

So in the afternoon, while Carl Williams was reading the same paper, Johnson struck him in the side of the head with a heavy metal seat pole, battering him a further seven times before dragging him into his cell. The other cell mate, Tommy Ivanovic, had watched the attack and joined Johnson for a few laps in the courtyard. They entered the day room multiple times before asking a prison guard to sound the alarm, because Williams had “hit his head.” The prisoners began barking and howling as the news swept through the jail.

Johnson claims that the third party, Ivanovic, had told him that Williams planned to attack him with pool balls in a sock. So Johnson got him first. Whether it was true or not, we will never know. But what we do know is that this story is a testament to the paranoia that runs rampant in the prison system.

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“FACT NOT FICTION’
My words are fact I don’t speak in fiction,
I speak of my enemy,
The true masters of restriction,
The boys in blue are known so well,
Hell bent to make my life hell,
I'm no angel, this is fact,
They uphold the law,
It’s all smoke and mirrors just an act,
They work for a system built on much deceit and lies,
Corruption rises to the surface,
When poor old Carl dies,
They offer me a deal,
Tell lies and go home in ten,
I’ll never back up there fiction,
Fact is, I’d rather grow old here locked up in the pen.

But it also bleeds into the outside world too. In 2016, 25-year-old Rodney Phillips and 23-year-old Sam Liszczak went on a violent rampage throwing molotov cocktails into the home of Carl Williams wife Roberta and unloaded a sawn-off shotgun into the home of Carl Williams father George’s home. They had both been released from Barwon prison for less than a month and were known recruits of the P.O.W’s. When they were apprehended in a stolen car by police, they blasted a police officer in the head with a shotgun, leaving him with 14 pellets lodged in his head. When they returned back to concrete yard in Barwon, they were met with a standing ovation from the inmates.

How you conduct yourself in line with the archaic views and values of prison culture, shapes your prison persona and posits your place in the hierarchy. “It’s not what people do say, it’s what they don’t say that cooks in your head during lock-up,” says an ex-inmate of the Acacia unit, “In prison everyone's watching and taking notes, you have to be good at reading the play otherwise it’ll eat you up…or they will.” Conversations are just chess moves behind a primal game, the reading of human behaviour for clues, that determines whether your predator or prey.

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In a letter to his cousin, Johnson describes his experience of prison, a cage he will likely never leave; “Same old shit. Just another day in paradise, my paradise. Not getting into it. Not getting out of it.”

For more, follow Mahmood on Twitter

“ME”
You may think you know me,
For what the media tell,
But they don’t care about truth or reason,
Just how many papers they sell,
For I to have friends and family,
Who care and love me to,
And they don’t pass judgement,
On things that I may do,
For every action there’s a reason,
And consequence a price,
Some of us will take that risk,
It’s a roll of the dice,
You may read all about me,
And think you know it all,
Where I’ve been and what I’ve done,
Isn’t your judgement call,
For I know the reasons,
And what is right or wrong,
And those who love me,
Stand with me,
And therefore I stand strong.

“CONVICTED”
The trial was an outright circus,
Full of clowns and many tricks,
It was doomed from the get go,
Still I battled hard against the pricks,
The media loved it,
To them the victim well known,
I'm just me, to the wolves I was thrown,
The evidence was brutal, 7 hits to the head,
Dragged by the feet,
Still and dead,
My story was truthful, it was kill or die,
The jury didn’t believe it,
The thought it a lie,
It was I against their very best,
Still their story contradicted,
The enemy of the justice system,
So me, I got convicted.

“CHOPPER”
Chopper is one ugly man,
He likes to paint and write books,
He and I have never met,
But I know I have better looks,
Even if he had his ears,
He’d still look like shit,
I can’t respect that type of man,
Not even a little bit,
He bashed some inmates for the screws,
To me that shit just aint right,
If he ever comes back to prison,
He’ll be my bitch alright,
I’d put him in a skirt and panties,
A lady boy he will be,
Then pimp him out to willing inmates,
For all the screws to see.

UNDERBELLY
A channel nine comedy,
About fatboy and his crew,
Fatboy and Roberta,
Portrayed ever so true,
Roberta’s filthy mouth,
Would put any truckee to shame,
They hit the nail on the head,
Got herself to blame,
Fatboy looked the goose,
Dangerous fat and dumb,
He eats fried chicken by the buckets,
Doesn’t leave a crumb,
Roberta was the boss,
Fatboy was her bitch,
Now they need another script,
To show fatboy’s a dead snitch,
I hope they bring back Kat Stewart,
She plays Roberta with such class,
All I want to see again,
Is Kat’s hot little ass!

“POOR CHOPPER”
Poor choppers sick,
And might end up dead,
Sadly his liver is killing him,
And not a bike seat to the head,
His doctor told him no more drink or smack,
But silly old chopper headed to the pub,
And scored another whack,
He’s always that stoned,
He can’t stay awake,
There’s not a drug invented,
Old chopper wont take,
Methadone, heroin, speed,
And the demon drink,
No wonder the fools liver is on the blink,
He says he got Hep C from a jail tattoo,
He got it from a junkie,
Stop talking poo,
He’s talks a lot of shit,
Claims he done a lot of bad,
When this dickhead finally died,
I know I won’t be sad.

“ROBERTA”
Some say it’s a girl, but it looks like a man,
Everyone knows I’m not a big fan,
It does dirty things so it can smoke crack,
I know men who have been there,
So that’s a fact,
I met it outside it had putrid breath,
Standing so close,
I felt minutes from death,
It said I looked good and gave me the eye,
I ran for my life and didn’t say bye,
It’s truly insane thinking I’d give it a go,
Word is ist would take my entire elbow,
I heard a story it done & men for a laugh,
The dirty animal stayed 3 days didn’t take a bath,
Each to their own if that's what it digs,
It reminds me of one of the 3 little pigs,
With a husband like carl nobody wins,
Come to think of it they looked like twins,
At the end of the day i do wish it well,
But I have to say that, or the police will tell.

“CARL WILLIAMS”
You saw him in the paper,
You laughed at him on the telly,
He had a head like a bowling ball,
And a great big fat belly,
He sold drugs and made more money than you local bank,
He even married the worlds biggest filthy rotten skank,
We know what he did and how it ends,
He killed all his enemies,
And even some friends,
In the end he was caught,
And send here with me,
I thought he was my friend,
But he died an enemy,
I treated him well,
And always watched his back,
Still he planned to kill me,
And that’s a fact,
He left me no choice, fat Carl had to go,
So I did what I did, I put a tag on his toe.

“JOHN SILVESTER”
The name sounds like a fictional cat,
But it actually belongs to a real life rat,
He writes crime books and reports for the age,
His tales are 10% truth,
The rest he writes with his ass and puts shit on the page,
He claims to have sources inside and out,
He calls himself sly and writes underbelly books,
He’d be in chat pants, selling his ass if it wasn’t for crooks,
I could understand if he wrote facts and truth,
But instead he’d rather make up lies,
Like a paid dog with no proof,
He’s just a puppet for the boys in blue,
They feed him stories when they know there not true,
This ugly little maggot makes me sick,
If it would help sell his books,
He’d suck a big black dick.

“FRIENDS”
Real friends stick it out,
Through thick and thin,
It doesn’t matter if things stay bad,
Or if we end up having a win,
Part time friends will drop in and out,
The meaning of loyalty they know nothing about,
Real friends are there for a laugh or a cry,
Part time ones forget your name after you'd die,
Real friends are family we make for ourselves,
Part times ones are as real as trolls and elves,
Real friends don't even have to try real hard,
Part time ones won't try at all and end up barred,
Real friends will read this and just smile,
Part time ones will have to stop and think for awhile,
So go look in the mirror and see if your real or just part time,
And if you don’t see a smile,
Then your no real friend of mine.