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There I stood, trying to comprehend the bleakness of the yard, scared out of my gourd.

Only yesterday, I comprehended a big pile of stones, and a shovel with which to shift them around. I worked for the railroad, the Western Australia Government Railway, laying down ballast for new siding track at a site near Perth. Then, I did not enjoy my work. Now, a mere day later, I yearned for it.

A sleek car had pulled up alongside our gang at the work site, a bloke in a suit emerged, called out my name, and introduced himself as Sgt. McGrath of the Perth police when I stepped forward. He "invited" me into the back seat, along with my friends Willy and Jorgen. We were carted off to a police station in Perth, where we were questioned. McGrath wanted the fellow who had sold us a fingertip-sized chunk of hashish at a house party we had recently attended. Some loser at the party had reported this transaction. But we didn't know the guy's name, or where he could be found. The sergeant expressed his displeasure. We were charged with smoking marijuana on two occasions a few days before. Guilty as charged. "Not marijuana, hashish," offered Jorgen, a stickler for detail.

We did not have lawyers. We did sign statements. We were naive.

They locked us up for the night, they fed us, and then trundled us before a fat, sanctimonious magistrate -- grey-headed, grey-skinned and grey-clothed save for a blood-red vest stretched across his mountainous belly. This man despised us. He chastised us for appearing before him all filthy and dishevelled -- we were dirty, still in our creosote-stained track laying clothes, unwashed and unkempt after our railway work and a night in the police lockup. He hated us for our long hair, and for being, as he called us, foreign hippies, there, in Perth, to corrupt upstanding Australian youths. Like the one who sold us that tiny block of hash.

For our heinous crimes, we were each sentenced to three months as guests of Her Majesty the Queen. Three months for smoking pot, to be served at Fremantle Gaol, a maximum security prison. We were that dangerous.

They hauled us off to prison, a half-hour journey from downtown Perth, in a windowless police bus. The jail, a butt-ugly pile of dirty grey stone, was built sometime in the 19th century. Sometime before the First World War they built an addition, still called, a half-century later, with no sense of irony, the New Division.

At the prison, we were stripped down, prodded and poked by a medic to detect evidence of communicable disease, then issued ugly green and blue prison uniforms, tailored to fit your average 250-pound gorilla. Clad thus, we were led to the prison barber, a huge black fellow, who did not know how to cut hair but loved his work nonetheless. He was the first cheerful person I had come across since being abducted from the railyard. We made his day, with our long-unbarbered locks, our scared white faces.

We were separated. I wouldn't see my friends again for months. A "screw" (guard) escorted me to my new accommodations, through the prison, and up some stairs to a corrugated, green-painted steel door and the grimy 8-by-10 cell behind it. Home. It contained two steel cots, and a tin bucket with a wooden seat and wooden lid -- for when nature called, you understand. The place reeked of disinfectant. An overhead light bulb in a cage, a grey plastic radio, hard-wired to receive the prison station, and an empty shelf above each cot completed the furnishings. I could turn the radio on, or off. I did not have the choice with the light.

A con appeared, handed me a hot metal dish of something, and a tin mug of strong black tea. Luncheon was served. The screw slammed the door, and bolted it. Alone now, I pried open the two halves of the tin plate, called a "dixie," and beheld what I understood to be food. It was pretty much unidentifiable, although I did recognize potatoes, and something that might have once been meat. I had not eaten anything since that morning at the police lockup -- two pieces of toast soggy with detested margarine -- but I had no appetite. Feeling very sorry for myself, I just sat on one of the cots, and fought back tears. What had happened, why was I here?

A buzzer snarled, a jarringly loud metallic rasp that jangled in my gut and behind my fingernails. This brutish sound came to dominate the next three months of my life, of all our lives, con and screw alike. Now it heralded the end of lunch, and the beginning of... what? Someone banged on my door with a stick, unlocked it and thrust it open. A screw glared in at me.

"Drop yer dick, mate, an' grab yer dixie. Follow the others," he growled.

Cons were streaming along the corridor and down the metal stairs to the ground floor. There, we piled our dixies in a big steel cart, and followed the crowd outside.

Outside, to the yard.

I would like to joke that it reminded me of a school I once went to. But on that day, when first I beheld it, I would not have thought that, nor anything so droll.

I felt sick with fear. What did I know of prison life except what lived in my imagination?

I expected a hostile reception, that, as a newbie, I might be beaten to a pulp.

Thoughts of abuse danced in my head... visions of rape. My rape.

The yard was a compound, maybe 120 feet long by 80 feet wide, more or less, closed in on all four sides by grey stone walls -- high walls, with enclosures for the watching screws. Smack in the middle of the asphalted yard sat a long low concrete wall, covered by a rusting corrugated iron canopy. Along one side of this wall was a trough, a urinal, while a long metal sink, with cold water taps spaced at intervals, ran along the other side. There were a few crappers at the back of the yard, partitioned off from the main part, but unroofed, and users were in full view of anybody watching from above. Screws.

There were maybe 200 of us, dressed in identical green jeans and blue-striped shirts, every last one of us with short hair, not stylishly cut. Big men, little men, old men, young men. A lot of black men. Aborigines. Abos they were called, by themselves, by the cons, by the screws. There were no Abo screws.

Everything was grey, grey on grey, excepting only the drab greens and blues of the cons. The sky, probably blue outside the prison walls, seemed a pallid grey from the inside. It felt claustrophobic.

I took a few steps forward, into the grey light.

Nobody noticed.

Nobody noticed, nobody cared. Nobody gave a damn about me. In the Outback, through which I had passed some few weeks earlier, where there were hardly any people at all, that had been irritating. Here, it was a blessing.

Invisible. Invisible to the guards, invisible to the cons. Invisible.

Slowly, slowly, I shuffled about the yard, trying not to stare at my fellow cons, trying not to catch anyone's eye. Instinctively, I knew I should display neither friendliness nor hostility. Just indifference.

Show indifference. You don't have to feel indifferent, just show it.

Watch everything. React to nothing.

The men lounged about in small groups, smoking, talking. If a horse race blared on the wireless, some would gather about to lay bets in ounces of tobacco, listen to the race, and yell in triumph or curse in despair according to the result. Nobody played catch or kicked a soccer ball. Errant balls could cause an outbreak of trouble.

Don't cause trouble.

Not a pleasant place to be, compared with, say, Bali, compared with, say, everywhere else I'd ever been, but, really, it wasn't all that terrifying either. Here, I had no friends. Jorgen and Willy had been assigned to other divisions. But, maybe I had no enemies either. A place to be careful in, not frightened of, I thought.

And as I slowly moved about, I began to calm down, for the first time since hearing that fat blob of a magistrate condemn us to this grey hole.

OK, it was an experience, and that's why I travelled, not so? And, critically, I had a fixed date of release, three months hence less an automatic three-week remission if I behaved myself. I intended to behave myself. I could do this thing. I didn't want to do this thing, but I didn't exactly have a choice, eh?

This too shall pass.

I started counting the days. That's what cons do, isn't it?

 

This is the second of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers' Collective Non-Fiction Contest. Earlier stories can be found at winnipegfreepress.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 A13

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