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Last month I picked up a friend getting released from Barwon Prison. He'd been incarcerated for nine years, the majority of which was spent in Melbourne's most secure solitary housing unit—the infamous Acacia Unit. In the car we spoke about the language that's evolved inside the system, and how, as he put it "the wrong words or phrases can get you stabbed, while addressing officers or guards with the wrong title can bring on enough suspicion to have a plot stirred up and have your throat cut."
In prison, inmates don't have much. They all wear the same clothes and shoes from the same catalogue, and the only thing setting them apart is their personas created through language. What they choose to share, and what they keep hidden. I find this interesting, and I started to think about how I could extract the parts of their lives they keep hidden.
In surrealist theory, automatic writing is an exercise in which you write down words that spring to mind in no particular order as a way to express the subconscious. Automatic writing has been long used as a tool in Freudian therapy, whereby the words become an insight into the mind of the author.
I decided I could use some of this process to help prisoners connect and share their feelings. So over multiple phone calls with inmates across Australia, I workshopped a series of poems with prisoners from some of the country's most hardcore yards, followed by conversations that could hopefully reveal the conditions of their imprisonment.
Here are their poems, lightly edited for clarity.
Robbie H, 33.
Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Port Phillip Prison.
Robbie spoke to me on the phone about lobbying for drug reform within the prison system. He blames prescription medicines for a lot of violence and corruption of inmate welfare, specifically in regards to rehabilitation. His poem voices his concern about the monopoly Buprenorphine (an opioid substitute used to treat opioid addiction) has on the prison economy.
You're Only Worth a Strip of Beup
Buprenorphine runs the system
It's veins addicted
To drugs that are to treat addiction
That leave the helpless stomped on
Junkies that need help are forced to dog on
Men that gut em and cut em for their script
Left in vomit cold sweats and fits
Their needles stolen and shared
By a unit desperate for a bloody fix
Who'll sell their ass to a hundred dicks
For half a strip of beup and an hour of kicks
And made fun of as they laugh in the mix
Of officers eating their buy up
And treating them like they were raised to feel...
I was introduced to Christos after hearing that he squirted a tomato soup bottle filled with urine and excrement on a prison officer. He was known to be one of the biggest larrikins and trouble makers in the entire system, boasting "flags" (bans) from most Victorian prisons. He was adamant about writing a love letter to one of the "screws".
Doggystylin' The Screw
I could sniff her shampoo through gaps in the cell window
A perfume of shopping plazas and pharmacy shops
Her soft pale skin
My arm pulls her in
And tug her pony tail
Grip tighter than a firearm
A thrust of love, a kiss of spit
And romance becomes tiring so we wrestle and pace towards
A climax of sweat and throbbing muscles
That ends in mucus
A kind of forgetting
Of what we were doing in the first place
A fantasy that becomes a stalemate
For a related VICE doco, watch rapper and proud Yorta-Yorta man Briggs inside Reiby, a Juvenile Justice Centre on the outskirts of Sydney.
Musa Al-Australi, 26.
An Australian who has reverted to Islam in the controversial Goulburn Supermax shares his observations from the scenes that make up his simultaneously mundane and chaotic life. I met him through a prison service for Muslim inmates, that helps them set up a network that keeps them away from the life they are trying to abstain from. Musa has hopes of teaching the youth about the vicious realities of the glamorized hype associated with street life.
Praise of the birds trapped
In the super mosque
Protect the pious
At all costs
In a sea of green hoodies
A forest of snakes
Of shard glazed eyes
And juiced up tatted fakes
I pray to the beneficent
To guard me from there white lies
Guide me to the magnificent
With rusted shanks
And cross marked kites
Cell door locked cold
As the animals tuck up and fist fight
In the lion's den
Where we sport scars with pride
And make pretend with
Our so called friends.
J Chile, 38.
Port Phillip Prison.
Chile is a rapper who has spent the majority of his life battling a heroin addiction that's landed him waist deep in court cases, countless charges, and investigations. Leader of a ruthless prison gang with connections to cartels in South America, he paints a violent picture of the world he calls home.
Get Shanked in the Yard
It was a warm afternoon
The microphones on
But no one's addressing
How the static means doom
The heads dart left to right
The stomach churns upside down
As palms swap the tomb
Colored make-shift shanks
Sold by cowards to weak rats
Who whisper about the skunk
That looms in our yard
The joker or the trump card
Are never played with skill
So the loner is fed his fill
Of cold steel thuds
And drop he does
Because an ice junky accused him
Of putting his boys in the mud.
Matt is a bikie who has been in and out of jail his whole life. He contacted me in a fit of rage over protective inmates being granted parole and provided better care and services than mainstream inmates. I told him to vent his anger through the use of poetry. He told me to get fucked. Then rang me back the next day.
The Dogs in the Pokie
The pedo copped half a brick
While I sit in solitary
Begging parole, sucking their dicks
To let me out to see my family
Cos I've done half me life in the nick
And just want a chicken roll
Away from this hell full of pricks
And sick wankers
Doing easy time for hard crimes
Protected in safe spaces
I wish we'd share yards
So I could cave their faces
Instead of sniffin' pepper and mace
Sprayed every time we spit
At the dogs behind the fence
For more depravity, follow Mahmood on Instagram