How it Feels to be Blind in an Australian Prison
"Being blind in jail is like being in solitary confinement 24/7."
In February, Human Rights Watch published a report on the neglect of disabled prisoners in Australia. The author of the report, disability rights advocate and researcher Kriti Sharma, explained that “the services to support a prisoner with disability just aren’t there. And worse, having a disability puts you at high risk of violence and abuse.”
I thought about that, and the deaf, blind, and incapacitated people who are serving time surrounded by violence. Prison capitalizes on loneliness, and for less abled inmates the horrors of the jail yard are much heavier.
A few weeks later, I met a man named Richy. I was visiting my cousin at the time and I watched Richy being escorted to the visit centre by a guard who gently whispered and dictated the path. Richy spent the duration of the slow walk to his seat, smiling and apologising. He walked with jilted confidence, in the same staunch stride as the other hardened inmates, rolled sleeves that show-off a smudged dragon tattoo, but still embarrassed to be publically relying on a prison officer’s arm for guidance.
He wanted respect, like everyone else, not sympathy.
I met Richy’s older brother at the local Hungry Jacks in Ballarat. We ordered take away and drove back to his place to anticipate Richy’s routine phone call. He told me that the prison Richy was incarcerated in was not prepared for a blind inmate or inmates with disabilities. Although, he believes, they did everything to accommodate Richy, he blamed the anti-social prison culture and Richy’s distrust of authority, for his difficult time in prison.
VICE interviewed Richy to understand the struggle of life in prison for the visually impaired.
Richy* / 52 / Attempted Murder
VICE: Hey Richy, how did you end up in prison?
Richy: I was charged with attempted murder after I attacked my housemate with a baseball bat. He got drunk one night and started to fuck around with me. I told him to pull his head in. And he started to grab me and all that. I got this real peado vibe from him and tried to get away but he followed me. I had a messed up childhood and got fucked around growing up. I was molested. So I grabbed a bat by the door and lost control. Don’t remember much after it happened but I didn’t want to stop.
When did you begin to lose your vision?
I was in the nick for about 6 years when the doctor told us I had a brain tumor. I lost my sight after surgery. It was a real shit storm. You know, jail is designed to make you feel anxious. All you do is sit around and think. That’s your nine-to-five. Thinking can fuck you up mentally. Now imagine, you suddenly can’t see. That’s what the slot [solitary confinement] is for. Taking away any distractions and focusing your thoughts, as like a punishment, because you’ve fucked up. Being blind is like being in the slot [solitary confinement] 24/7.
What is an average day in prison like for you?
One of my mates looks after me in here. I give him some of my buy-up in exchange for cleaning my cell. We have muster [headcount] in the morning and then have breakfast at nine. We walk around the yard to cut some laps before going back to my cell for a cuppa and a general chat about the footy or something before we’re locked up again. My brother visits me once a month which is nice. Otherwise, I give him a call every day around 5:30. That’s the only other time I leave my cell. It’s hard because you can’t rely on the caretaker because everyone will call you a dog. Can you believe that? [We are] in protection and blokes are still going around calling each other dogs.
What was jail like before you lost your vision?
It was all good. You get into a groove and then time just rolls on. You can keep busy, play a bit of soccer with the boys, work out twice a day, watch movies and cook yourself some noodles on the side whenever you get hungry. You know who’s who. You can pick up on cues if people are trying to get one over you. You can play the game, mate.
What was it like afterwards?
Hell. Hell on earth. You think people are going to feel sorry for you, they don’t. Jail is the last place to get sympathy mate, everyone in here thinks they’re owed sympathy. I thought I was being paranoid at first but these low life cunts were stealing my food and soft drinks. Another bloke stole my fucking pillow. I was abused [sexually] multiple times with guys putting a shiv to my neck. I thought about suicide all the time. I was eventually forced to sign out and go into protection because I couldn’t survive. No one helps you. The screws just say to sign out if you have an official complaint, and if you sign out you're a dog [an informant].
You told me on the phone that you’ve been having nightmares?
Last week, I had nightmares. I hear loud fucking bells and can smell blood. The smell of the factory in Oakleigh I worked in when I was 17 and ran away from home. The garage in Ballarat where my old man’s tools would collect rust and he would stash his choof. And pretend around town like he was the most upstanding bloke going, but at home we knew the truth. It was his mates who touched us up. The choof didn’t have a smell. But I dream of the smell of his garage and blood because it’s kind of the same. A rich stinking steel. A real strong smell. Don’t see many things in dreams anymore. Just colours and hear things. Sometimes, I’ll see my Mum’s face but it will scare me. She’s the only woman I’ve really loved and it hurts me every time I think of her. It’s scary. Her face will appear in flashes, like a cheekbone or a nose but like in those ghost stories where you stick a torch beneath your face. The nightmares are getting worse.
Have things got better in protection?
Yeah, except everyone just complains more. Blokes are crying. It wears you down, so I just stay in my cell. There’s less wannabe tough guys and more people that will actually give you a hand because they’re lonely not because they want to steal your buy ups. I can just concentrate on the time I’m doing. One of the psych’s helped me get a CD for meditation to help me get my thoughts together. Apparently the actual CD is for dogs with phobias to help them get used to their surroundings. I listen to the sound of waves sometimes and imagine I’m on a boat in Torquay. I listen to the sound of a forest on other days and imagine I'm on a holiday in some beautiful rainforest. Sometimes, I think listening to a thunderstorm can be the most relaxing thing in the world. Well, for someone locked up anyway.
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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.