Walking the Path (Or: Endless Highway)


The “Heiner Affair” remains a stain on Queensland’s juvenile justice system (see previous posting). At the time the Goss Labor Government decided to shred documents, some people were agitating about events at the Westbrook Boys’ Reformatory, which had been at the centre of an enquiry in 1961. The parallels between Westbrook and the John Oxley detention centre were obvious, suggesting not much had really changed with the system. The Queensland government (and one particular political staffer) was alarmed.

Westbrook has been the subject of a book (pictured above) by former internee Alfred “Crow” Fletcher. It is available on eBay.

The 1961 report, by stipendiary magistrate Schwarten, was critical of some aspects of the Home, but was ridiculously supportive on most matters, including who was sent there, and why. Despite breaches of regulations concerning punishments, no recommendations were made for disciplinary measures against staff. The Government Director responsible for the institution was absolved of all knowledge, and responsibility, for events at Westbrook.

Thirty years later, as Magistrate Heiner was in danger of discovering, little had changed in the State’s juvenile justice system, except that now law-suits were possible from the victims.

The 1961 enquiry was prompted by a mass break-out of inmates, which the enquiry attributed to incitement by an article in the Brisbane newspaper, “The Truth”. Mr.Schwarten noted that “in my opinion, the front page headline [“Boys near to mutiny”] was so framed and its contents so written as to be highly inflammatory”.

Schwarten also criticized a guard, who he identified, who had been reported in the paper as saying “He was sickened by the brutality inflicted on the boys” and that “If some of the warders don’t curb their sadism, it might even be that a boy who will be carried out of there in a coffin”. The guards statements were termed “highly inflammatory and dangerous” as it “would incite and influence” inmates, by the distinguished Mr. Schwarten.

Before continuing, it is necessary to point out that, in most Homes at the time, children were not known by their names – only by numbers, itself a form of abuse.

So, who was sent to Westbrook?

Most of the boys had been convicted of what today would be minor offences, such as shop-lifting, illegal use of a motor vehicle, or simply being regarded as “uncontrollable”. In a nifty piece of foot-work, Mr.Schwarten ruled that it was also acceptable to send State wards (the author was a State ward) to Westbrook because they had technically been “convicted” for being “neglected”, even though they had committed no other “offence” or “misdemeanor”.

Boy 99 fell into the latter category. He was transferred from the St. Joseph’s Orphanage. His file notes that he was said to be surly, abusive and his conduct was intolerable. The punishment book records that on 21/1/61 he received 10 “cuts” (illegal punishment at the time) for “absconding”. He received the same punishment for the same offence a few months later, and then 3 cuts on 27/5/61 for “insulting terms”. Most former residents of Queensland Boys’ Homes well remember being threatened with being sent to Westbrook if they didn’t behave, because sometimes someone was, indeed, sent there, just like boy 99.

Boy 88 was convicted as an “uncontrollable boy” and sent to the St. Vincent’s Nudgee Orphanage. His behaviour did not improve sufficiently, so he was sent to the more authoritarian Salvation Army Boys’ Home at Indooroopilly (the author was also in that Home at the time). After an escape attempt, he was sent to Westbrook as punishment.

Mr. Schwarten said that: “There is nothing to be said in favour of boy 88. If any of the inmates owed a debt of gratitude to the State, it was boy 88. The State gave boy 88 an opportunity that does not fall to the lot of every honest and well-behaved family boy”. This was because, after achieving a score of 75% in the Scholarship Public Examinations (which was really high and placed him in the top few percent of Queensland students), was allowed to attend High School, but blew it all by absconding. He was sentenced to two years in prison for his part in the break-out (setting a diversionary fire in the hay-shed).

The circumstances of one inmate would cause extreme out-rage today.

Boy 94 was transferred from St. George’s Anglican Home (the author was in this Home for a time) because he was intellectually handicapped, which had presented problems for the Home’s administrators. The punishment book records on 27/5/61, among other offences such as “disobedience”, boy 94 received two “cuts” for “refusing to play football”.

There were a range of punishments, not always recorded in the punishment book, which were illegal or simply scandalous. The forced administration of the purgative, castor oil, was one such punishment (it is the source of the deadly poison, Ricin). This one prompted the comment by even Mr. Schwarten of “shades of Mussolini”.

The punishment of jumping up and down on the spot,(or “kangaroo-hopping) for extended periods of time, also attracted one of the few negative comments in the report. Schwarten reported on “the physical strain, if imposed for any considerable length of time. It must be rather degrading to compel an inmate to jump up and down like an animal in front of the other inmates”.

Recently, there were reports in the media about how degrading it was that, in India, “untouchables” were required to dispose of the body waste, by hand, of higher castes. At Westbrook, there was a similar practice for the staff’s waste, performed by boys referred to as “pan boys”, probably as a form of punishment. They had to collect, empty and clean the staff earth-closets, or “shit cans” as they were known.

Boy 66 gave his reaction to this chore. He said “I’II get sick of it, you do it every morning. Sometimes, when they get fully loaded, it goes all over your hands; when you wash your hands it leaves a smell and you cannot get it off”. As an aside, inmates were only allowed to change and wash their clothes once a week. Schwarten reported that “The inmates are issued with a change of clothing once a week, on Sundays (visitors day), and they wear and work in the same clothes continuously from the time of rising in the morning until retiring to bed at night.” For boys, particularly those working in the piggery (and the pan boys), he noted that their clothes “must be particularly smelly”.

“Walking the path” was a punishment imposed mainly for minor breaches of discipline, such as talking on parade. The path was about 30 metres long, and inmates were forced to walk up and down it, “at a brisk pace”. When a boy was placed on the path, it was for an undetermined time. He got off it when the warder felt he had learnt his lesson. This punishment was not recorded in the punishment book, as required by law.

Boys had to walk the path “every spare moment of the time except for time taken for meals, ablutions, toilet and chores”. In the evening, the boy would have to stand to attention, in silence. The only exception was on visitors’ days, prompting Schwarten to comment, “I wonder why?”

Length of time on the path varied from a few hours to 3 months, although longer times could not be ruled out. Even warders reported seeing boys with blisters and bleeding on their feet. Schwarten noted that “In my opinion it was an aimless and futile form of punishment and excessively harsh when imposed for long periods.” He concluded that “it was somewhat akin to solitary confinement.”

Neither Westbrook, nor the Heiner Affair, will go away. Many instances of sexual abuse occurred in both cases, it is claimed. People are used to the involvement of the religious organisations in child abuse scandals, but these were cases of the State doing evil. As such, all citizens carry some responsibility.

The Royal Commission must revisit both matters, even if it means that certain political and legal figures are exposed.

[Postscript: In memory of John Munt, a long time friend and neighbour here in Blackbutt. One of the first to raise Westbrook with the Goss Government]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: The entertainment industry

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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