About a boy … literacy, a right not a privilege

* This article contains the names and images of deceased Indigenous people. I acknowledge that to some communities, it is distressing and offensive to show images of people who have died. I have weighed up my respect for this belief against the desire to highlight injustice and inhumanity. 

In this National Year of Reading, I want to tell you a story. It’s not one that I tell very often because there’s a scar on my heart from a tragedy on April Fool’s Day, almost twenty-two years ago.

It’s a story of despair and hope and tragedy. It’s a story of a young man who fought demons from the moment he was born. It’s the reason I will never turn away from taking out racists who step in my path – with pen and rapier sharp, restrained fury.

Once upon a time, I taught adult literacy in Boggo Road jail, Brisbane’s notorious prison before it closed down. Now it’s a museum, a redeveloped urban village with its own Sunday markets and young urbanites sipping coffee.

Back in the late 1980s, my class was a disparate group of Murri inmates, indigenous men from Brisbane and regional Queensland. I was an ex-early childhood teacher with updated training in teaching reading and writing to adults. I worked for TAFE and ended up in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Educational Unit – hence the job in Boggo Road.

Boggo Road Jail, Brisbane. Photo:the De La Dream girls

I must’ve been brave in those days – or headstrong. Not only did I have no experience in dealing with cultural issues, I’d never worked in male only classes before, nor set foot inside a razor-wired prison.

Boggo Road hunched on a rise in the quiet suburb of Annerley, high-walled and with hidden atrocities. Between 1885 and 1913, forty-two inmates were hung on the jail’s gallows. There are tales of ghosts and unmarked graves beneath the bricks. Even in 1989, it had a fearsome reputation. Many of its more notorious inmates were household names – The Colossus of Boggo Road, armed robber and later Australian Wrestling champion, Nathan Jones; James Finch and Andrew Stuart, the “Whiskey Au-Go-Go” murderers, amongst others. I never came in contact with them. My brief was to lift literacy rates amongst the Murri prisoners.

The first day I walked through those gates, a warder took me to the Education Room – a loose term, as many of the prison guards believed punishment did not include education. But Keith Hamburger, Director-general of Corrective Services, an enlightened reformer had been in charge for a few years. Aboriginal prisoners were encouraged to do cultural studies, art and literacy.

     That morning, twenty-six big, black men filed into the room and one asked, ‘Where’s ‘Melanie’? (my vivacious, popular predecessor). I told them she’d left. They voiced their discontent and I knew I had to take a stand or all was lost. So I smiled and said, ‘I bet you were disappointed when the teacher before Melanie left, but you got used to Mel. I’m here now, and I reckon you’ll be saying the same things to the teacher who’ll come after me!’  They laughed and we were okay.
     Teaching literacy is a delicate business – how do you follow the curriculum and teach what one needs to know to survive in a print-based world, but still bring in teaching the sort of reading and writing that will open up the mind and the heart.
     I held a morning class every week for almost a year. Sometimes, I was kept waiting at the main gates for several hours, but they didn’t know how stubborn I could be. Sometimes, the reasons were legitimate, like riots or shut-downs, or visiting social workers, or a death in the prison. But sometimes, I knew it was out of spite by a group of anti-education officers.
     The classes ranged from two students to twenty. I never knew what to expect. The Murri prisoners were linked by their brotherhood in Boggo – much more than the white prisoners. There was always a warder, sitting at a desk, keeping an eye on things. The large, steely eyed Moira was one of them. Scary woman. But I never felt threatened by those ‘black brothers’ of mine in Boggo Jail.
     I can’t claim to be the world’s best literacy teacher – if I find curriculum boring, I figure a student will feel the same, and I break rules. Hence, a lot of time was spent on poetry writing and song lyrics (their request), and life-story writing (my request). We tackled the filling in forms bit  together – yes, I was a literacy teacher challenged by official forms. And they had lots of those!
     One student, a dark-eyed boy named Russell, took to poetry like  fish to water. His verse spoke of anger, politics, land rights and desperation. He’d been in and out of foster homes since he was three and in and out of jail since he was eighteen. But in prison, he learned to paint and to dance story, to express himself through written words and best of all, he discovered the cultural classes.

When the Government began to decentralise prisons, many Murri inmates of Boggo Road were sent north to the Mareeba prison and to the notorious Etna Creek prison, near Rockhampton. There’s a saying … the further north you go, the more racists you’ll meet. (I don’t hold to it, but I do have extended family up north who fit the bill).

Russell wrote to me from Etna Creek. He was pleased when he’d heard that many of his own Bidjara people were still in their tribal area near Carnarvon Gorge. He was keen to talk to them in language when he finished his sentence in a few months time. He was excited that Ross and I would visit Carnarvon with him and he’d ask the old people if that was okay. He wanted to come back to Brisbane to finish his time, and then go back to school somehow.

Russell’s final  letter began with the words … “To start things off, I’ve been in a bit of trouble up here.”  The trouble involved a fight with prison wardens and Russell ended up in solitary. Rumour was that Russell was defending his cousin. I wrote back, warning him to lay low and don’t bite back at the guards.

In the early hours of April 1, 1990, Russell died in the detention unit at Rocky jail. Police said it appeared he hanged himself. The Aboriginal community believed otherwise.

Hours after Russell died, another young man was found hanging with his wrists slashed. In his report, a Rockhampton newspaper reporter added his newly composed song dedicated to Russell and to black deaths in custody.

It ends with the words, How many more blacks must die before the white man will understand, that all he wanted was to be left along and given a second chance, to be back with family and friends when his time was due, but it makes me feel so sad inside ’cause it could have been me or you. Robert H’s sentence had just been increased by three months because he destroyed a blanket in his earlier suicide attempt at Blackall watchhouse.

The Aboriginal legal services spokesman said Aboriginal prisoners had complained of harassment and unfair disciplinary treatment by jail officers. The Corrective Services Minister at the time, Glen Milliner, rejected his statement, saying, “I’m annoyed that they are using these deaths to go public on this thing”.

My last letter to Russell turned up at my home the day of his memorial service. Unopened, with address unknown on the front. I’d misspelled the jail’s name. You would’ve thought someone in the system in Rockhampton knew there is only one jail in the district. My letter of hope for the future may not have helped Russell, but I bear the regret still.

This is one of Russell’s free verse writing, after he edited it in class for spelling errors.

How many enemies before we can find a friend? How many nights before we can see the day? How many must suffer before we can be free? How many years before we can find a day? How many people must die before there are none? This is how I feel inside me and it comes from my heart for my people. Russell J L October 1989


Twenty years after the ROYAL COMMISSION INTO ABORIGINAL DEATHS IN CUSTODY, Crikey.com asks Why are the fatalities still rising?

© Sheryl Gwyther 2012


32 thoughts on “About a boy … literacy, a right not a privilege

  1. Thank you Sheryl. These are stories we don’t hear. Thank you for weighing up that delicate balance between respect for those who have died and the need for us to know. Russell’s verse and his longing to find a way when all seems dark will echo in my heart and prayers.


  2. This beautiful young man knew he was cared about and respected by you. You made a difference and continue to do so by writing his story here. Thank you for sharing this with us.


  3. Meredith, Jodie and Sue, thank you for your comments. This story is just one of the terrible things happening still to indigenous prisoners in Australian jails and watch-houses. The more it’s exposed, the better.


  4. Thank you Sheryl for sharing with us what must still be very painful memories. We never want anything bad to happen to those people we care for and it must have been so sad and frustrating for you to have had your students, who we can’t help but grow attached to, scattered to other places that were so much worse than the already despicable place they had been placed in. When will we as a people realise that all living creatures, people and animals alike, deserve our respect and care and that there is really only one race, the human one.


  5. An incredibly moving story, Sheryl. Take heart that you did indeed make a difference, to Russell and no doubt to many of the other students in your class.


  6. Thanks for sharing this moving and very personal story. I’m with Kaz – there’s a book in this story! One that could powerfully demonstrate so many injustices.


  7. Thank you, Chris. I too wonder “what dose it all mean”? Three months for destroying a blanket in a suicide attempt is inhumane. I hope karma catches up with that magistrate in Blackall. Wish I believed in karma.


  8. A tragedy, Sheryl. (So sadly among too many.) Thank you for sharing this painful story. I’m sure you did help Russell and his brothers. The difference is no doubt hard to see with these men up against so much both inside and out. Three months for the blanket was criminal. Makes me wonder “what dose it all mean” too?


  9. Sheryl,

    This is such a powerful piece on such an important issue. The extent and depth of racism in our country still shocks and horrifies me. It confounds me that people can think this way about another person.

    Thanks for sharing this. So important to get people thinking about the consequences of their racist actions.


  10. Adult literacy is such a fulfilling field and you did make a difference Sheryl- a sad and tragic story- I’ve worked extensively in adult literacy too and actually still after ten plus years, write to one of my students… thanks for sharing.


  11. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Angela. And add to it educating non-indigenous children (I’ve given up on most racist parents now) that Aboriginal people have much to offer this country, if they’re asked.)


  12. I often wonder what good it does shutting anyone in jail. There a few – a very few who have to be looked after, away from others, but not in jail.

    Tell your story.



  13. So much depends on education and a teacher’s role is so complex. There is still a lot of bigotry out there and racism and xenophobia. Detaining refugee children is so shameful and yet it happens. Death in custody says a lot about the prison system and Sheryl I admire you for speaking up. As a country, we have a lot more to gain by providing better educational programs and opportunities so that kids do not offend in the first place.


  14. Sheryl, thanx for touching a delicate issue in your life and a much larger issue in society in such an honourable way. We have so much to do as writers, to engage, motivate, inspire… and keep on task… thank you for your courage!


  15. Thank you all for your responses to this post. It was difficult to write, and then again, easy as it is imprinted on my mind and heart.
    Remember, never let racists think they have the right to spread racism. They don’t.


  16. Thank you Sheryl,

    your heart and your head is in this tragic tale. However, I believe one person can make a difference and I’m sure you did.

    Take it further. Please. All Australians need it.



  17. At the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, the solicitor representing the two families said ‘there had been a lack of discretion in the charging of Hopkins over the blanket’. Lack of discretion. So sad.


  18. Thanks for sharing such an important story because all lives are valuable are deserve remembering. Such sadness that the QLD justice system hasn’t changed either. Much peace to you and Ross. Anita


  19. wow – what a story – tragic, sad and frustrating on so many levels. 3 months for the blanket?!?! Shocking.
    A story which so needs to be told and I am so glad that you chose to do so. It highlights so many things which need to be spoken about, discussed and brought out in to the open.


  20. Hi Sheryl .
    WoW, What a heart rending story. I felt your emotional pain and anger with the system.
    I agree with Kaz that there’s a powerful story to be told here.
    Good luck with whatever road you choose to take.


  21. Sheryl, how tragic, but what a poignent depiction of events. Sadly, it often takes a personal affiliation for some people to take their blinkers off. Though I doubt a gentle soul such as yours ever wore racist blinkers.

    We still live in sad blinded times.

    Thank you for sharing – and I must say, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s a book in this story. You have such a wealth of experience – not just physical, but heartfelt. I think you would pay these poor men a wonderful honour ro write a story that shows how they suffered. A period YA?


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