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Honour among thieves


I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you - Exodus, 12:13

Highlands stone axeIN THE EARLY DAYS of the Australian Administration in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, prisoners were an integral part of outstation maintenance.  They cut the grass and unloaded the aircraft and the cargo boats. 

They maintained the station gardens and the station roads, disposed of the rubbish, chopped the firewood and pumped the water and doubled as builders’ labourers.

Prisoners serving time in these small outstation jails were never far from their families.  In fact, it was a common sight to see prisoners’ wives and families on daily visits from nearby villages sitting patiently under the station trees watching the prisoners cutting the grass or doing other outstation maintenance work.

Although the families were never allowed to interfere with the work the prisoners did, there was always the chance for a prisoner to cuddle his children, have a few words with his wife, or a short catch-up with village news before being locked away with other prisoners in the station jail for the night.

This outstation prison system had existed ever since Britain assumed sovereignty over the Protectorate of British New Guinea in 1888, and it served a useful purpose in maintaining the outstations  while at the same time providing a correctional service that was gentle, humane, open, and friendly.

Or so we thought. By the 1970s various academics were pointing out to us that our outstation prison system was unprofessional, debilitating, and inhumane and that it reeked of forced labour, public humiliation, and indignity.

Far better, they said, that prisoners be collected into central Corrective Institutions, there to be detained behind high walls by professional warders skilled in penology and criminal psychology.

Thus the small outstation jails were relegated to the status of police lock-ups and temporary holding facilities, while the Corrective Institutions, which had previously only accommodated prisoners sentenced by courts in the main centres like Port Moresby, Lae, Madang and Rabaul, were expanded to accommodate all long term prisoners sentenced from any court anywhere.

These institutions were big, unfriendly, hateful and soulless and the traditional connections that the prisoners had had with their local village environments were lost and gone forever.

Bomana Corrective Institution was one such facility and it was there that prisoners sentenced in the Ela Beach District Court were sent.  Ela Beach was basically a traffic court, and traffic courts normally impose fines and suspensions and disqualifications of driving licences. 

However, certain traffic offences attracted prison sentences. These included driving while under the influence, driving while disqualified and unlawful use of motor vehicles.

In the 1970s and 1980s Port Moresby was in the grip of a crime wave. The reason for this was the third-world poverty cycle, and it is probably still the case today. With high unemployment and no unemployment benefits people often had no option but to steal in order to eat. Unemployed vagrants in the squatter settlements overlooking or adjacent to the high covenant suburbs of Port Moresby found the contents of these well-established households irresistible.

Private companies went to extraordinary lengths to protect the homes of their expat staff from burglars by erecting high wire mesh fences topped with razor wire around their houses and installing bars and other security devices on doors and windows. But for the average government house the only security offered was wire mesh over louvered windows. This was only a minor deterrent to a determined burglar.

In some streets over a period of several years every house had been burgled.  Some homes had been repeatedly burgled, although it must be mentioned that quite often all that was taken was yesterday’s half stale loaf of bread or some food from the refrigerator.

One expat told me his house was burgled while he and his family were having dinner at the yacht club.  The burglars only took left-over food from the refrigerator, ate it on the premises, then washed the plates and cutlery they had used and left the clean plates stacked neatly in the kitchen sink.  He said nothing else was taken.

All the valuables in the house were left undisturbed.  Burglars like these were said to be ‘good’ burglars, and their unlawful entry onto the premises was rarely reported to the police.

Then there were the ‘bad’ burglars: the professional criminals known as the rascals. Encouraged by the general breakdown in law and order, the overworked police and the overburdened courts, these burglars burgled with a vengeance.  On some occasions there were known to completely strip a house of all its contents including furniture, fittings and carpets, leaving the house with bare floors. 

They were the ugly face of Port Moresby. Literally, that is, since they often disfigured their faces with scars and tattoos.  This disfigurement was their badge of honour and different tattoos and scars signalled their particular rascal gang affiliation.  That is, you could tell which gang a rascal belonged to by the scars or tattoos on his face.

The police were quite good at catching these rascals but when it came to prosecuting them the legal system failed. Burglary was an indictable offence which could only be tried in the National Court before a judge after lengthy committal proceedings in a Magistrate’s Court.  The whole process from beginning to end often took years and there was a very high drop-out rate along the way.

Some defendants escaped custody or skipped bail and disappeared and sometimes expat victims who were the prime witnesses often left Papua New Guinea when their contracts expired and were not available when the National Court listed their case for hearing.

Also, in the long lead time to this hearing, physical evidence was often lost, mislaid, or thrown out by mistake.  As a result, by the time the National Court was ready to hear the case there was often not enough evidence remaining to proceed so the case was dropped and the burglar was free to burgle again.

However, the police soon found a short-cut around the shortcomings of this system.  Most burglaries of any consequence usually involved the use of a motor vehicle.  Most rascals were not silly enough to use their own vehicles and they always used stolen vehicles.  They simply stole a vehicle before each burglary then left the vehicle abandoned somewhere afterwards. 

Police were usually able to recover the vehicle and identify who had driven it and, working on the assumption that any jail sentence was better than no jail sentence at all, they would prosecute the burglary as a traffic offence.

Unlawfully using a motor vehicle was an offence under Section 14 of the Motor Traffic Act with a penalty on summary conviction of up to six months in jail.  The police could prosecute these cases quickly, usually within one or two days after the burglary when all their witnesses and material evidence were still available. 

Thus, instead of appearing as defendants in a preliminary hearing for burglary in the Port Moresby Magistrate’s Court, the burglars found themselves being prosecuted for a traffic offence in the Ela Beach Traffic Court.

During one such hearing, one of my court clerks was sitting at the back of the courtroom. If their own work was up to date I encouraged them to do this so they would better understand the court process in case they too might later wish to become magistrates. 

On this occasion I took no notice of my clerk sitting there.  After I had sentenced the defendant to three month’s imprisonment and the police were taking him away my clerk burst into tears.  Alarmed, I called her up to the bench and asked her what was the problem.

“He’s my brother,” the clerk sobbed and, wailing, she left the courtroom.

How I recruited this rascal’s sister into my court staff is another story that need not concern us here but now that I knew about the relationship I was tempted to get rid of her.  However, she had always been a good clerk and had shown no sign of criminal propensity so I decided to keep her.

This turned out to be a wise decision because it was through her that I later got to know a good deal about the rascal gangs of Port Moresby.  She never ever told me which rascal did which burglary but she did give me a glimpse of how the gangs operated and who their leaders were and where they lived and so on.

A few weeks after this incident the rascal’s sister told me that her family was worried about his welfare now that he was separated from them and locked away inside Bomana Correctional Institution. 

It was a situation that never would have arisen in relation to a prisoner in an outstation jail under the previous system because they could have seen for themselves how he was and what he was doing. But here in Port Moresby under the new correctional system it was different.

I suggested that they could visit the rascal at Bomana during normal visiting hours but they said they felt intimidated by the high walls and the razor wire and the cold-hearted impersonal manner in which prisoners were incarcerated there.

“It’s a horrible place,” the girl said.  Then she asked me if I would visit her brother.  “After all,” she said, with the wisp of a Mona Lisa smile, “you put him there so you should visit him there.”

The thought of visiting my own defendants in jail at Bomana had never occurred to me before.  But then, if this rascal had been a prisoner in one of my outstation jails, I would have seen him and spoken to him every day.  There was a certain amount of sense in what the girl was suggesting, so I agreed.

With the girl still standing at my desk, I telephoned the Superintendent of the Bomana Correctional Institution and asked if I could visit a defendant as a follow-up to the sentence I had given him.  The Superintendent agreed and it seemed such a good idea that I asked him if I could visit all my defendants in the future, and he agreed to that also.

“Satisfied?” I asked the girl.

“Yes, Sir,” she said softly, and two tears trickled down her cheeks. “I will tell my mother. She will be happy you are going to visit him.”

And so I began to visit every defendant I put in jail.  Not often, usually only once or twice a month depending on the circumstances. But these visits were amazing.  The prisoners showed no animosity towards me for putting them in jail. They were more interested in what was happening outside and at home.

They would ask me all kinds of questions about their families; questions that never would have been asked by prisoners in an outstation jail in friendly and familiar surroundings. But here at Bomana prisoners were cut off from their traditional Melanesian family environment and marooned inside an alien prison system.

So I became the outside messenger for the prisoners. It was not a tedious task as there were missionaries and welfare agencies whose help I could draw on, so a few phone calls from me and a few visits from them often solved the prisoners’ immediate concerns.

Also, before I visited a prisoner in Bomana, I would often visit his family first. I would do this on my way home from work, threading my way between the shanties of a squatter settlement, sometimes with the rascal’s sister as a guide, sometimes just following her directions, as she knew where all the rascals lived.

Thus, when I visited a prisoner I could keep him in touch indirectly with what was happening at home.  I could tell him that young Johnny fell of his bicycle and Mary Jane is getting married next month and Billy found a job and so on; bringing him up to date with the sort of family news he could have learned by telephone if there had been a telephone, but of course there were no phones in the hovels where the rascals lived. 

Thus the prisoners would listen eagerly to any news I had and, even though it was I who had put them in jail, they were always happy to see me because of the news I brought from home.

However, one of my visits to Bomana Correctional Institution had the most extraordinary consequences.

The police had had a major coup in their fight against crime. They had arrested the leader of one of the rascal gangs and they were able to pin multiple charges against him for unlawfully using many different motor vehicles during the course of a series of different burglaries.

Cumulative prison sentences saw him facing more than three years in jail.  He was older than the average rascal, with a string of previous convictions, including two years for manslaughter and as he was being loaded into the prison van my clerk, whose brother was also a rascal, came and stood next to me.

“He has killed four men,” she whispered in my ear. “They were other rascals who disobeyed him.  No one ever reported it to the police because everyone is frightened of him.  He is a very dangerous man.”  Then the door of the prison van clanged shut behind him.

“He is known as the King of the Rascals,” the girl said.

In fact, he was such a hardened criminal that I thought that any visit by me to him inside Bomana would serve him no good purpose. However, as I had visited all the other prisoners I had sent there I thought it would be unfair to exclude him.  So I visited him also.

The first visit was frightening.  The King of the Rascals was led into the interview room by two guards, one each side to restrain him.  Two other guards stood one each side of me on my side of the table to protect me.  He was the ugliest rascal I had ever seen and his repulsive face, disfigured with tattoos and scars, glared at me across the table.

I explained the purpose of my visit but got no response. Since I had half an hour to go for my interview, I kept on talking. I talked about the Ela Beach Court House, and the reason why I visited all the rascals I had put into Bomana.

But it was like talking to a brick wall.  He did not say a single word. Finally, when my half hour was up, I thanked him for listening to me and the guards led him away to the cells and I returned to the Court House.

Although I could not get him to talk at the first meeting, he did talk during my second visit.  He said he had a problem at home. His daughter had dropped out of high school.  He said his daughter’s name was Dina, and she was running wild with a bunch of rascals. He said he did not want her to end up in jail like him and he asked if I could help.  I took a few more details from him and I told him I would do what I could.

Next day, back at the Court House, when there was a lull in the proceedings I called Dina’s high school principal and asked what the situation was with her.  He said she was a good kid but that her academic record was not good and he was not surprised she had dropped out. 

He said it was the same with all kids who live in squatter settlements around Port Moresby; no electricity, overcrowded living conditions, no place to study, and it was worse for her with her father in jail.  He told me her enrolment was still current, she would have a few weeks’ study to catch up, but that she was welcome to return to school.

As we had an open plan office everyone there could hear my side of the conversation and when I had finished, the clerk whose brother was a rascal and who also doubled as the official office stickybeak came over to my desk.

“I know where Dina lives,” she said. “Would you like me to ask her to come in here?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I said.

Next morning, when I came into the Court House, Dina was there, sitting beside the rascal’s sister.  As soon as I sat down she walked over and stood in front of my desk.

“You sent for me?” she asked, without any introduction.  She was seventeen years old, slim and trim with her hair teased up in a big bouffant style then favoured by pretty Papuan girls.  I wondered how such an ugly rascal could have such a beautiful daughter.

“Yes,” I said. “Your father is worried because you dropped out of high school.”

She stood facing me, beautiful but defiant. “You put him in jail,” she said. “Why would you care about him?”

“I don’t care about him,” I said gently. “But he cares about you and I promised him that I would help you if I could.”   And I went on to explain what the principal had said and that she was welcome to return to school.

“What’s the point?” she asked, helplessly. “I can’t keep up with the studies.”  I agreed that she would have difficulties trying to study in a squatter settlement but that the principal thought that she could catch up with all the others and graduate at the end of the year if she had somewhere better to study.

“Like where?” she asked, still defiant.

“Like here,” I said, indicating our office.

“You mean here, in this Court House?” she asked in disbelief.  By this time everyone else in that open plan office was listening.

“Why not?” I said. “You finish school at three. You could be here at three-thirty.  We are supposed to finish at four but some of us are usually here till five.  If you have a free afternoon at school you could come any time and during school holidays you could spend each day here.”

“Where would I sit?” she asked tentatively, looking around the room.

“You could sit there,” I said, indicating a table which we used for sorting the depositions.  It was next to the desk where the rascal’s sister sat.

“Yes,” the rascal’s sister piped up. “Sit here, and if you have any problem with your studies, I will help you.”   And suddenly, everyone else in the office was offering to help and it did not take Dina long to agree to resume her studies. 

Later, I took her over to the Ela Beach library, which occupied an adjoining building, and I arranged for her to study there during weekends. The librarian even offered Dina inter-library loans for any other books she might need.

One month later on my routine visit to Bomana I was happy to tell Dina’s father that she was back at school and that she was studying in the Court House during weekday afternoons and in Ela Beach library during weekends.  He said nothing. Every month thereafter I gave him a progress report but on each occasion he listened in silence and said nothing.

My last visit to Dina’s father was just after I had heard the results of her final exams.  That last visit began like all the others; four guards, two on his side of the table and two on mine, and I gazed across the table at that ugly disfigured face.

“Your daughter passed her final exams in all subjects,” I said. “And she will graduate from high school at the end of this year.”  The ugly face stared back at me without emotion.

“I found her a job at the hospital,” I added. “It is in administration and it doesn’t pay much but she can start there after she graduates.  From there she can move into nursing at the next recruitment.”   The ugly face continued to stare at me then suddenly the King of the Rascals put his hands to his face and wept.

The wracking sobs reverberated around the small interview room while the guards and I looked on in astonishment.  The sobs continued until the guards took him away and that was the last time I saw him because some days later he broke out of Bomana along with thirty other prisoners and he was never found again.

But as the years rolled on we saw a lot of Dina because when her nursing roster allowed she would drop into the Court House just to say hello.  One day she brought her new boyfriend in to meet us; a young Australian doctor she had met at the hospital.  She introduced him to everyone in the office and showed him the desk where she had studied during her final year at high school. 

She was still as beautiful as she was on the day I had first seen her and she was now very much part of Port Moresby’s rising young urban elite.  As I watched from my desk I marvelled at the transformation she had made from rascal girl to doctor’s companion and I thought to myself, goodness me, did I mould her into this chic new image all by myself?  Well, I guess my staff had helped, and so had she and I wondered what her father thought of her now.

Then one day some police from the Major Crime Squad came to the Court House to warn me that over the previous six months every house in my street had been burgled, except mine.  They said that because I was putting rascals in jail I should take extra precautions because it was likely that my house would be their next target.

“No!”  The rascal’s sister suddenly interrupted from across the room. She had a habit of chiming in on other people’s conversation, and she did so again this time while the police were warning me.

“Your house will never be burgled,” she said, and she spoke with such conviction that I wondered if she had some inside information that she was not sharing with us.  After all, her brother was a rascal and her best friend Dina was the daughter of a rascal gang leader.

But she was right. In all the years I lived in Port Moresby my car was never stolen and my house was never burgled and at first I could not understand why.  Then one night when I was returning home late I saw two shadowy figures lurking furtively beside the road near my house.

They were partly obscured by road-side bushes but as I turned my car into the driveway the headlights shone directly into the faces of two ugly rascals.  It looked like my turn to be burgled had arrived.

So, moving as slowly as I dared, I parked the car, went into my house and lifted the phone to call the police.  But before I dialled I put the phone back in its cradle.  I remembered that there had been other occasions late at night when I had seen shadowy figures lurking on the road near my house but they had done me no harm then.

Suddenly I knew what the rascal’s sister had meant when she said my house would never be burgled.  Those rascals outside on the street were not there to burgle me.  They were there to protect me. They had been sent there to ensure that rival gangs or anyone else who had a grudge against me would not harm me.

I now understood that because I had rescued Dina from a life of crime and because I had helped her start a new life her father had returned the favour. He was protecting me from the ravages of crime in Port Moresby.

And with the plague of burglary all around me I had the strangest feeling that the King of the Rascals was sending me the same message which God had given to Moses: …… I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you.

You see, in those days, even in Port Moresby, there was still honour among thieves.


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