Australia: do people in prison matter less in an emergency than those who are free?

I’ve been to prison twice. The thought of those people stuck in Lithgow jail last year during the bushfire crisis still haunts me

There is one image from the bushfire crisis that I am still not able to shake. It has led to night terrors where I wake in a sweat, feeling embers on my face and a desperate need to walk outside and look at the sky.

What haunts me is the image of the prisoners locked in at Lithgow Correctional Centre when others were evacuated from the path of a fire last year. The government said the prison was “defensible” but I couldn’t imagine them letting the crims out to man hoses. Too much risk of escape.

Granted, this was back in that pre-history of late 2019 – before we knew the ferocity that was coming and before we saw those red-soaked images from inside the fire zones. We didn’t know how bad it could get. We didn’t truly know the risk we were leaving those prisoners to face.

I have a very creative imagination, but not this creative. My fears come from experience: I’ve been to prison twice for the same crime, committed in 1996. They are fears I’d met in the old sandstone cells at Berrima where I asked a guard what to do if there was a fire in the cell, and he said “break out or burn”. I thought he was joking at the time, but hearing about those prisoners left in Lithgow made me wonder if this is the official stance.

My visits to prison were 13 years apart, and in between, I rehabilitated. I did exactly what I thought the system wanted me to do. I shook off a history of abuse and violence and somehow found my way to making a new life for myself. I got clean off drugs, went to university, got my son out of foster care and living back with me. I never committed another crime and was slowly starting to believe in myself. But it wasn’t enough to keep me out from behind bars.

In my imagination, if that fire hit Lithgow prison, the inmates would be locked in their cells, helpless, while guards and firefighters defended the prison. Each would have only their cellmate for company and a tiny view of the horrific black, red or boiling sky through a window covered with bars. They might have a TV on, if the power was still going, but no internet – no Fires Near Me app or social media feed to keep them informed.

They’d have been smelling the smoke for days, seen the stories on TV about them. They’d know that the fires were coming. But they wouldn’t be able to do anything. They’d have to trust their safety to the same people who lock them in – trust their lives to the people whose job it was to break them.

The “knock up” button would still work, but with guards also fighting fires, their typically brusque responses to fear or anxiety would turn aggressive under the torrent of complaints. Prisoners would be able to do nothing but stay in their cells, pray if they believed, do whatever it took to get through the long, hot, smoky nights.

Prison is not gentle. It doesn’t give you space to feel safe, or room to heal or change. It’s a daily lesson in how little you matter within the system, and with those constant reminders, it’s hard to imagine ever mattering again.

Even after my second stint in prison, I’ve achieved things. I’ve written a book, finished a PhD, taught at uni. But the messages that were drilled into me during that second time behind bars aren’t slipping away like they did after the first. Because I rehabilitated – and it meant nothing. They sent me back anyway.

I’m a long way from those cells now, but imagining those men locked in while flames licked at the prison walls brings all the fears flooding back.

Was leaving the prisoners in Lithgow locked up to face a fire the only answer? If the prison defences failed and inmates died, was that part of their punishment? Did they consent to these risks when they committed their crimes?

Do people in prison matter less in an emergency than those who are free?

These questions might seem extreme, but they are just some of the messages we’ve sent those men at Lithgow and anyone else who may find themselves caught up in the justice system in NSW.

We like to pretend that prison is about rehabilitation. Incarceration is supposed to help you become a better person. But prisoners are not given any proof that doing so will make them “matter” to society like people who’ve never been locked up.

Families on holidays matter. Farmers and firefighters matter. Koalas, cattle and zoo animals matter. But those men locked up weren’t worth the risk of evacuating.

We are all only ever a few choices away from those cells, but those of us who’ve tried to rehabilitate have got the message. I got as far from prison as it was possible to get and one single misstep put me back there. I’d forgotten how quickly you can go from person to inmate, and how hard the path back can be.

Could there be any clearer message that those behind bars don’t really matter than the decision to leave them locked up in the path of a fire?

• Angela Williams is an academic and the author of Snakes and Ladders, available now in Australia through Affirm Press