Bernie Matthews






Pan Macmillan Australia, October, 2006
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

The book cover says “Hell has a name: Katingal.” Katingal was Australia’s first experiment into high tech prison management. It was a disaster. Built in the 1970s, Katingal was a state-of-the-art windowless, soul-less unit designed to replace the 19th century-style Grafton Prison. Both prisons were horrific places designed for incarceration and management of difficult prisoners with absolutely no pretence of rehabilitation. INTRACTABLE is Matthew’s no-frills description of what life was like in both prison units.

Matthews should know. He has spent the best part of 20 years of his adult life behind bars. Initially convicted for bank robbery, Matthews’ repeated attempts to escape custody earned him a trip to Grafton prison when he was in his twenties.

Grafton was a brutal, horror story of a place. It was an endless cycle of bashings and solitary confinement. Prisoners were routinely bashed and beaten for the most minor infraction of rules. Induction to new prisoners at Grafton consisted of being stripped naked and beaten with batons by up to half a dozen guards. Then they were flung into solitary confinement. Look into the eyes of a “screw” (prison guard) and you were beaten. Fail to have all your buttons done up: another bashing. Matthews describes his first meal in Grafton; an unknown mush writhing with maggots. When he refused to eat it, he was bashed and left in his cell with the bowl of food until he did finally eat it. Until that time he was allowed no other food. This was how prisoners were kept in line. When Grafton hit the headlines in 1975 after the practices in the prison were uncovered, the government finally had to act. Their answer was Katingal.

Katingal was a concrete bunker into which no light or fresh air could enter. While prisoners weren’t bashed, it was a different kind of torture for them; this time psychological. They were incarcerated in single bed units for up to 16 hours a day. There was no organized activity and almost no contact with other prisoners. Katingal has been likened to the Model Prison constructed in the old Port Arthur Penal colony in Tasmania in the 1850’s. Katingal was closed just two and a half years after it was opened. Studies revealed that more than six months in such a place could and did cause irreparable psychological harm. Matthews spent most of the two and a half years of Katingal’s operational life in that unit. He describes almost losing the will to live.

Matthews chronicles the violence that surrounded him in a no-nonsense style. Some of his friends were among the most notorious criminals in Australia at the time. What is obvious is that treating serious offenders by trying to break them down either with violence or psychologically through deprivation only serves to make them worse. Matthews’ behaviour behind bars only improved after the closure of Katingal and he was placed back into general prison population and began to be treated as a human being and allowed to pursue some interests.

Matthews offers no explanations or justifications for his actions. Neither does he offer any sort of analysis into the mindset that placed him in these intractable units for such a long period of time. It’s a pity in a way because the thing that exercised my mind the most while reading INTRACTABLE was trying to fathom exactly what was going through the minds of the men who seemed to be active and at times almost willing participants in the endless circle of violence and imprisonment. But perhaps that is the subject of another book. I hope so.

Bernie Matthews earned a degree in journalism while behind bars and is now a regular contributor to . He is also involved in various activists groups for prisoner welfare. Some of Matthews’s contributions to online opinion may be found at

Oct 2006 review originally posted on Murder & Mayhem


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