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How Fear Helped Build Australia's Supermax Prisons

From bikers to terrorists, supermax prisons are a holding pen for the country's worst nightmares.

by John Birmingham
Sep 9 2015, 12:00am

Located near Perth, Casuarina Prison is the main maximum security facility in Western Australia. Image © 2015 Digital Globe, Google. Map data © 2015 Google

This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia.

In Australia, to go into supermax is to descend into the sixth or maybe seventh level of prison hell. It's the maximum-security prison you get when regular maximum security is just a little bit tame. Terrorists, mass killers, top-shelf gangsters—they all get to enjoy the isolation, extended lockdown, and dehumanizing security of supermax.

Of course, modern Australia was birthed in chains and blood. It remained a prison for generations, twisting and stunting the Australian imagination still. As Clive James said of Robert Hughes's epic history of the convict era, the term "concentration camp" would not have been ill-used to describe the early colony. Norfolk Island, our earliest experiment with punishing the punished, was not an out-and-out death camp, but it was "certainly designed to make its victims long for death, like Dachau... when the idea was not so much to kill people as to see how much they could suffer and still want to stay alive." For Georgian England, Australia was a maximum-security facility, and for Australia, far-flung satellite gulags like Norfolk and Tasmania were supermax.

Modern Australia was birthed in chains and blood.


Today, Australia has three dedicated supermax prisons, which function like the off-world colonies of the penal system: Goulburn High Risk Management Unit in New South Wales; Casuarina, West Australia's Special Handling Unit; and Barwon Prison in Lara, Victoria, a "secure" home for some real-life Underbelly stars... until Matthew Johnson put a dent in its status by beating gang leader Carl Williams to death with part of an exercise bike.

There are other, smaller lockdowns scattered around the country where the hardest criminals do their time—although every now and then some genius politician comes up with an idea to strip supermax inmates of their celebrity status. In Queensland, the perversity of the former Newman government's plan to dress jailed bikers in pink jumpsuits, presumably to undermine their manhood, may just have contributed a little more oomph to the ass-kicking Campbell and co. collected at the ballot box last year. It did draw some rare attention to the facilities where bikers would see out their sentences for the crime of being bikers. These guys are unusual in modern supermax mythology—for being thugs for the profit motive, not the prophet Mohammed.

Since 9/11, supermax has been linked closely with terrorism. Australia's first convicted holy warrior, Faheem Khalid Lodhi, scored his AA class—the highest security classification reserved for the most dangerous prisoners—after plotting to blow up the electricity grid. The so-called Sydney Five—Khaled Cheikho, Moustafa Cheikho, Mohamed Ali Elomar, Abdul Rakib Hasan, and Mohammed Omar Jamal—went down in 2005 for planning various attacks around the city. Khaled Sharrouf, convicted of a minor role in that plot, served his time in supermax then went on to Syria and another 15 minutes of fame, waving severed heads around on the internet with his seven-year-old son.

Supermax serves the same purpose for us as the Antipodes did for the one-percenters of Georgian England.

Of course, by anointing them with AA status, supermax makes rock stars of jihadis who could well be small-time criminals with mental problems. There is an argument that tossing them into the general prison population would quickly see them reduced to the level of pond scum. But supermax serves the same purpose for us as the Antipodes did for the one-percenters of Georgian England—it's a place of exile and punishment for those who embody our worst fears.

For the system itself, supermax is an attempt to contain a virus. By securing the likes of Sharrouf away from the general prison population, his jailers hoped to stop the spread of radicalization through the ranks of murderers, rapists, and bank robbers who might otherwise bring their special skills to the holy cause upon release.

It's probably a forlorn hope. Most of those original terror convicts wore their time in supermax as an old lag might have worn scars from the cat-o'-nine-tails—a mark of pride, never to be erased. And a criminal like Carl Williams? Was he likely to be tempted by martyrdom's offer of 72 raisins in paradise? Probably not, given the gold-plated coffin he was buried in.

In the end, like so much of our modern obsession with the threat of "The Other," supermax is more about the theater of security than the reality. It's telling that security nerds call the likes of Sharrouf "non-state actors" because they are playing a role. In supermax we collect our fears. We gather them not solely to deliver us from evil, but to revel in it. To marvel at and thrill us. There are few threats posed by would-be jihadis that could not be quickly dealt with by most normal criminals armed with a prison shiv. Instead we anoint them with special status. High priests of a death cult that is coming for us all. A threat that demands a sacrifice of freedom and blood.

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