Review - Australia's Toughest Prisons: Inmates, James Phelps

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

The follow up to a fascinating book Australia's Most Murderous Prison, AUSTRALIA'S TOUGHEST PRISONS: INMATES tells the story of a number of people in prison - for a change not all of the usual role-call of participants that show up in these sorts of books. The definition of "toughest" here is something that's really up to the reader's perception - it could mean hardest to cope with, or most able to cope with dreadful circumstances.

There's something very off-putting about the opening to this book describing the behaviour of Martin Bryant. Perpetrator of one of Australia's horrifying massacres, Bryant is a rather pathetic character in jail, and you can't help wondering if his trading sexual favours for protection or chocolate is a great way to start a book like this - feeling as it does salacious or designed to shock on purpose. 

Going from that story to those of some well-known prisoners, like John Killick who escaped from Silverwater in a stolen helicopter, and less well known, like the rugby player who became a drug mule, and even the founding members of Brothers 4 Life provides the author with an opportunity to explore some of the reasons why or even how repeat offenders or particularly violent individuals end up where they do. The consistency across these stories is variable though - obviously some have the benefit of subjects who were more forthcoming or there is more general information about the cases involved. 

Because it is a considerably more personal telling than in the earlier book, TOUGHEST PRISON INMATES is a more confronting read. There are aspects that are of historical interest and there is some new information about why prisoners like Killick, for example, spent so many years in jail and why escape was seen as a viable option. There's also some interest in gangs, many of whom are particularly NSW centric and therefore not so well known in other states, or at least for this reader. 

Written with the same engaging style as the earlier book, there's often a sense of connection between the author and some of the prisoners he talks to. There's certainly some glimpses behind the tough exterior to the thinking behind crimes and criminal lives and those sections of AUSTRALIA'S TOUGHEST PRISONS: INMATES were worthwhile and very interesting. Overall, sadly, this reader enjoyed this slightly less than the earlier book. There is some sort of weird sense of personal exploitation which made this harder to fathom, and then there's the sections on Martin Bryant, which flat out didn't contribute a thing that this reader needed to know.

Year of Publication

These are the true and uncensored accounts of Australia’s hardest inmates.

Martin Bryant – who killed 35 people and injured another 23 at Port Arthur in 1996 – is a 160kg slob who trades sex for chocolate in Risdon Prison. Twenty years after Australia’s worst massacre, his blond hair is gone, and so is his self-righteous smirk . . . but he is as evil as ever, showing no remorse for the crimes that shook the nation. He is just one of the killers in the rogues’ gallery of Australia's Toughest Prisons: Inmates.

You will meet the alleged hitman and undisputed hardman called ‘Goldie’, feared by both prisoners and guards alike. John Reginald Killick will tell you how he really escaped from Silverwater Jail in a helicopter and survived Pentridge Prison’s notorious ‘Hell Block’. And former Rugby League star Craig Field will tell you his incredible story of how one wrong pub punch landed him in prison limbo.

From the rise of ISIS gangs, the lethal underground drug and tobacco trade, and the threat of contraband phones, to shiv fights, brawls and white-collar criminal beat-downs, the secret lives of Australia’s most dangerous men will be on full display.

Award-winning author and journalist James Phelps reveals the horror of life inside Australia’s most notorious prisons, including Grafton, Cessnock, Pentridge, Minda, Risdon, Silverwater, and Lithgow.

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Karen Chisholm
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