Sunday, May 22, 2005

Weekend at Bernie's

Painting: By the late Raymond John Denning done in Katingal


NSW: In 1977, notorious Australian bank robber and prison escaper Bernie Matthews was behind bars and swapping letters with a young Kiwi reporter. Now an award-winning journalist, he says it was that pen-friendship that set him on his new career path. Last month a quarter of a century after they lost touch the pair met for the first time. DONNA CHISHOLM reports...

TWO WEEKS after prison guards flogged Bernie Matthews unconscious, leaving his blood smeared around the white cement walls of a visitor's booth, another of his distinctive blue aerogrammes landed in my cubby-hole at the Auckland Star. "Not much news," he wrote.

A few of the guys had got drunk on Brasso and boot polish, he had read a book about whaling days in New Zealand called Harpoon in Eden, and he asked for some postcards of Auckland to relieve the tedium. He cracked a few politically incorrect jokes. He had just had a bowl of spaghetti "you wouldn't give to a Jap on Anzac Day", and did you hear the one about the cross-eyed girl who cried tears down her back?

No mention of the fact he had barricaded himself in a prison workshop and torched the place in a suicide bid 10 days before. Nor that guards had subdued him, with mace and batons before carting him unconscious to Long Bay prison hospital.

The letters might have been censored anyway, but, he admits 27 years on: "I didn't wantto worry you."

These days, though, Bernie Matthews is achieving more at the point of a pen than a gun. In October, at the age of 55, he became student journalist of the year at the Queensland Media Awards, where he also won best online report and was runner-up to A Current Affair for investigative reporting.

It is that investigation into the possible misuse of DNA in the case of a man he met in jail that brings us together for the first time nearly 25 years after we lost touch. His research in 2002 unearthed Sunday Star-Times stories of the David Dougherty DNA-related rape acquittal, and he immediately emailed the paper to find out if the writer was his long-lost penfriend.

"I just couldn't believe it," he said.

"Is that really you?" I emailed back. "Where have you been for 25 years?"

We had begun writing in 1977, when he contacted the Auckland Star looking for international precedents for prisoners suing newspapers for defamation. He was fighting several Sydney tabloids after he was wrongly named as the man who had repeatedly raped a woman at gunpoint while on the run. He later discovered it was a police ploy to put pressure on accomplices to turn him in.

Our letters, exchanged almost weekly for three years, fostered his first sparks of interest in journalism. He went on to edit a prison newspaper, turning it into a controversial platform for inmate grievances, which captured headlines in the mainstream media. Even then, it was obvious he was not a typical jailbird. He would use words in his letters like subservient and obsequious, no apostrophe was misplaced and his magazine of choice was Der Spiegel.

He would send photographs of himself taken by the prison chaplain in his cell looking cheery at the typewriter or sitting on his bed holding a placard reading: "Love me, I'm lonely."

When we meet in the lobby of a Sydney hotel, he is recognisable but much changed. A physical cross between former All Black coach Grizz Wylie and movie tough guy Charles Bronson, he stands with legs planted wide a stance that imparts a don't-mess- with-me presence.

There is an impenetrable wall behind his eyes, but he is all charm and twinkling bonhomie. He brings a bunch of my old letters, a stack of tourist guides to Sydney and newspaper clippings from which his surly face of 30 years ago stares out grimly under headings such as "Rapist seeks a gun" and "Fugitive writes: Police want to kill me."

Then, he was one of Australia's most wanted men he was recaptured at gunpoint in a high speed chase that ended when police shot out his car's tyres after he had spent six weeks on the run.

Sydney detective Mike Kennedy, now a mate of Matthews' describes him as an old- school crim and an "organic intellectual". The sort of bloke who would rather do 25 years than rat on anyone; who would spend the proceeds on Jack Daniels and women rather than a needle in his veins. Someone who would never admit anything even if you asked him if he were breathing.

And someone with an unwavering sense of integrity about what he will and will not do. "My mother taught me never to go into a woman's handbag," he says (presumably she never taught him not to point a machine gun at a person's chest).

What makes his latest conversion remarkable is that Matthews spent nine of his nearly 17 years behind bars in some of the most inhumane prison regimes in Australia including the notorious Grafton "tracs" for intractable inmates, where prisoners were greeted with a "reception biff" by five or six guards.

Grafton Prison NSW

He also survived the "concrete coffin" of the Katingal Maximum Security Unit at Long Bay closed in 1978 after just three years, because of the psychological damage it inflicted on inmates. It was evidence from Matthews and other inmates at the Nagle royal commission that saw Katingal shut and the brutal regime in other jails ended.

Matthews served longer than all but one other in the Katingal bunker, where inmates could not tell whether it was day or night. That was where he "cracked" in the prison workshop one night in September 1977, before staff dragged him into the visitor's booth, awaiting his transfer to hospital.

Although raised by his mother after his father left when he was three, Matthews refuses to blame his childhood for his crimes, despite the fact both he and his sister ended up in jail, she for fraud.

A lot of people nowadays rob banks and they're on heroin or speed or whatever when I was doing it there was none of that. It was a business.

"I was a brash young fool who thought I could take on the world and come out on top," he told me in 1977. His motivation? Greed and the buzz. It was a choice deliberately made.

After his first convictions, a string of escape attempts and the attempted stabbing of a prison guard with a homemade knife took him to Grafton and then Katingal, but Matthews contends the prisons inflicted more harm on him than he ever did to others.

At Grafton in December 1970, he not only got the "reception biff", but he was batoned from neck to knee three times a day for the next eight days.

Evidence of the "reception biffs" were made public in the Nagle report: "The beatings were usually administered by three or four officers wielding rubber batons. The prisoner was taken into a yard, ordered to strip, searched and then the biff began.

The word biff by no means describes the brutal beating which ensued. Sometimes three, four or five officers would assault the prisoner to a condition of semi-consciousness. On occasions, the prisoner urinates and his nervous system ceases to function normally." Says Matthews: "I might have given them a hard time, but they certainly got their own back on me."

When you were being flogged, he says, it was a sign of weakness to scream, so you learned to keep your mouth shut, whatever happened.

"What a bloke should have done was scream at the top of his voice every time they raised a baton. It was a very small jail, Grafton, and there's a distinct possibility people outside might have heard. But it never happened because of this macho thing among your peers. You tensed up and shut your mouth. "Controlling my emotions is how I've survived. My missus used to say `You are the most unemotional bastard I've come across.'"

He sees harm only in physical terms he blanks out emotional trauma. He has not cried since 1973 when he was in solitary and got the news his mum had died. Yes, he has remorse for the civilians terrorised in his bank raids. I'd prefer they were terrorised than shot and killed. You go there to get the money, not to hurt anyone.

You hurt someone, that's a life sentence; you're never getting out." He doesn't see himself as violent a claim that brings a snort of derision from Mike Kennedy. "He jumps on top of a bank counter, he points a machine gun at ordinary women working in the bank. He says get on the f------ ground you f------ moll and give me your f------money. They all wet themselves and are on bloody pills for the rest of their lives, probably, and Bernie maintains because he didn't shoot them that he's not violent? Well that's a matter for him really, but I don't agree with him at all.

When he was finally released from Parramatta jail in 1980, two years after Katingal's closure, he swore he would never go back. But he did three more lags only one of his own making.

In the early 1980s, he lost his home and his lawnmowing business after being charged with the contract murder of a Sydney policeman's wife. The evidence against him rejected by a jury when it acquitted him in 1985, was given by a criminal in exchange for immunity.

After two years wrongfully jailed, Matthews became a high-profile advocate for both prison reform and opposing the rewards and sentence reductions offered to prison informers.

The former head of the New South Wales Prisons Department, Tony Vinson, now an emeritus professor at the University of NSW, says Matthews became such an effective and popular lecturer at student courses that he nicknamed him "professor".

He took over the prisons after Nagle's report and soon became aware of Matthews. "He argued that units such as Katingal not only failed to curb the criminal-ity of most inmates, it appeared
to have enhanced it.

"He was unusual for his passion for seeing the prison more as a source of harm than good, but he seemed to be blessed with a pretty good brain. I find him a very engaging person because of his wit; his capacity to get up off the floor. The fact he has survived so many of the experiences he's had and isn't totally locked in to a life of illegalities is quite remarkable."

Matthews was one of the brightest inmates he had met in the NSW prison system. "He could have made an excellent barrister."

Unsurprisingly, Matthews believes the compensation paid to New Zealand inmates who sued over Paremoremo's behaviour modification regime was fair.

"I can understand people complaining the amount of compo is excessive, but how can inmates respect the law if the same law abandons them when they are behind the walls and razor wire? It's important that prisons are transparent. People are sent there as punishment, not for punishment."

When he and partner Cheryl set up a halfway house for newly-released prisoners in Glebe after his 1985 release, Matthews became a regular guest on television and radio debates and a familiar face in newspapers.

But six weeks after he rang a radio talkback programme in December 1990 complaining about informers' rewards, he was again arrested and extradited to Queensland, charged with a $690,000 armoured van robbery and two counts of attempted murder. He was released nine months later when two other men were charged with the crime.

Kennedy: "I tried to help him but I couldn't do a great deal the people who locked him up weren't people I particularly liked. But at the back of my mind you gotta remember Bernie's been accused of armed robbery. He says he never did it, but has he ever admitted to one? Well, no. You think, is he capable of doing armed robbery with a gun? Yeah, of course he is. If he was a racehorse he'd have been the favourite but not all favourites win."

Matthews' release in 1991 saw him begin a five-year losing battle for compensation fromboth the New South Wales and Queensland governments.

He stayed in Queensland with Cheryl and began to dabble in freelance journalism, exposing stories such as the young offender sent to a mainstream jail who contracted HIV there and died of Aids and a scandal involving the health effects on sugar mill workers of the sugar cane byproduct bagasse.

Perhaps it was the bitterness over compensation, his break-up with Cheryl after 11 years, or the need to prove that at 47 he still had what it took to rob a bank that saw him and a mate hold up the National Australia Bank in the centre of Brisbane in 1996.

The moral? Do not rob a bank on the last Friday in September in Australia police Remembrance Day. "When we've come out of the bank and the alarm's gone off, 20 million coppers fell out of the sky and we were arrested," he told a television interviewer.

Doing a three-year non-parole stint the judge took into account his wrongful imprisonment on the other charges in the 1980s and 90s. Matthews began an external journalism course at the University of Southern Queensland, winning a scholarship after excelling at the tertiary preparation exams.

Released in 2000, he was thrust into the role of both mother and father to his then 12- year-old godson, Bodie. "His mother died of a heroin overdose in 1992, his grandmother died in 1993, his dog died in 1994 and his father was murdered in 1995."

On the week we meet in Sydney, Matthews has arranged a journalism student internship for Bodie on Ralph magazine a regular outlet for Matthews' stories. I ask Bodie what is the biggest lesson he has learned from "Uncle Bern's" parenting. "Never rat on your mates," he replies.

Bodie, says Matthews, is the biggest disincentive to return to crime. "I'll be pulling out all the stops not to. I'm responsible enough to recognise temptation. I can say no, I'm not a child. My rules are simple: I run my own race, I don't hurt anyone else and I don't expect anyone else to hurt me. My main problem is to raise a kid and hope he turns out better than I did. And I think he will. "

As unlikely as it seems, the Bernie Matthews I have just got to know is a role model any teenaged kid could be proud of.

He is getting his buzz these days in a different way. He proudly hands over his award- winning DNA story published in a new book.

"To a dear friend from the land of the long white cloud," he has written in the cover. "In reality, you started me on the road to journalism back in the turbulent 1970s when I was an angry young man. Now 25 years later I am a quieter old man and `DNA and the Justice Game' in this book is part of my journey into journalism."

It's a journey Matthews says he would take again if he had his time over, despite 17 wasted years. Crime, for him, is finally paying. Escaping from a life of crime Bernie Matthews' long journey from gunman to journalist October 1969: Convicted on two counts armed robbery, possession of sub-machine gun, larceny of motor vehicles.

June 1970: Escapes before sentence from Court of Criminal Appeal, recaptured the same day.

Sentenced to 10 years' jail, four years non-parole, six months cumulative for escape.

November 1970: Escapes from Long Bay jail. In nearly six weeks on the run, commits four more armed robberies two banks and two payroll heists. Sentenced to 71/2 years cumulative to earlier term, a total of 18 years, eight non-parole. After repeated escape bids, sent to Grafton jail's notoriously brutal intractables section.

October 1975-April 1978: In Katingal Maximum Security Unit at Long Bay, closed in 1978 and condemned as inhumane.

1978-1980: In Parramatta jail.

June 1980: Released. Marries in December. Relationship lasts only eight months. Starts lawnmowing business. December 1983: Arrested and charged with contract murder of NSW policeman's wife, the case based on evidence of a criminal informer. Spends two years in prison before being cleared in April 1985. Loses home and business.

1986-1991: Runs Sydney halfway house for ex-prisoners with partner Cheryl. Becomes advocate for better conditions in prisons, condemns rewards for criminal informers.

January 1991: Arrested and extradited to Queensland over $690,000 armoured van robbery. Charged with two counts attempted murder and robbery with violence. Released after another nine months behind bars, when two other men are arrested for the crimes.

1991-1996: Seeks compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

1993: Writes freelance for national newspapers, becomes the first ex-prisoner accepted into Australian Journalist Association without tertiary qualifications.

September 1996: Robs the National Australia Bank in central Brisbane. Captured and sentenced to 10 years' jail. Judge says he should be compensated for time served for crimes he did not commit, and sets a three-year non-parole term.

1998: Awarded entry scholarship as an external student to University of Southern Queensland. After distinguished entry results, is awarded scholarship for Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism.

2000: Released from jail, becomes full-time dad to niece's son. Continues freelance journalism from Tamworth home.

October 2004: Wins three Queensland journalism awards.

By Donna CHISHOLM posted May 22 o5



Retold from the original account by Denning in Australian Playboy Sept 80.

It was a matter of ethical importance that no cars be stolen no violence be committed no further crimes to top the crime of fleeing from criminal but lawful captivity.

All acts to be first done on self alone selfalone selfalone three days of self alone buried with transistor, buried by self to the world a wholly dead criminal.

Outside Grafton underground under grass sticks dirt, wild visions, dreams I can go for weeks without food, weeks of hunger to weak to walk to crazy water.

On the third day I came out and sought manna, the scum puddle bush cistern. Tom's really Ray, Tom's talking, Tom's here Tom's beside me, Tom tells me "Ray put ya pants on ya head and shoulders, Ray keep warm, Ray go back to sleep, Ray get up, go away, they think you're in the Blue Mountains", Tom knows.

Tom knows Ray was the first in the world to escape the walls of Grafton, a significant if little enlightenment, a foul water baptism a semi-religious half mythological case of minor sociological interest, at the time a political thorn, and now the plot source for a reconstructional poem by a little known poet. Tom knows too much, Tom's a smartee. Next time I escape Tom's not coming with me.

Written with due respect by a fellow of the first and last land of prisons, the self itself, and one time Two People, scared as hell by the awe of decision that moves like love and yet strikes the heart mute, moves the body with the force of steel, the coldness of steel, the inflexible will to risk and disappear, go out!

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