THE RECENT brouhaha over the potential decriminalisation of prostitution in Papua New Guinea reminded me of events that happened a very long time ago but which seem to be relevant to the discussion today.
In 1972, I was posted to Popondetta in what is now Oro Province, where I took up the role of adviser to the Higaturu and Afore Local Government Councils.
The local government office was located immediately adjacent to Popondetta's court house and it was not long before I got to know the Resident Magistrate, a former kiap, the late Harley Dickinson.
Like many RM's with a background as kiaps, Harley tended to render his judgements based upon a good understanding of PNG cultures and a healthy serve of common sense.
Most of the miscreants who came before him had committed minor offences, readily pleaded guilty and mostly accepted their sentences with stoicism. Consequently, Harley tended to apply the law with a relatively light hand, sentencing people to imprisonment only as a last resort.
He would sometimes discuss with me the more interesting or unusual cases that came before him and the following story is one of them.
In those days, in addition to the local Orokaiva people, Popondetta had quite a large population of young, single men, many of whom were working in surrounding plantations as indentured labour.
Of course, where you have lots of single men with a bit of cash and a certain itch that needs scratching, you’ll find ladies willing to provide relief for a fee.
The local Inspector of Police, Brian Chape, was a veteran copper who had come to PNG from Queensland. Brian was very familiar with remote towns where there was a surplus of single guys.
As a pragmatist, he knew that keeping these young fellows more content and less prone to being troublesome necessarily meant allowing them some outlet for their primal needs.
So, provided everyone behaved nicely, he and his entire contingent of police had a policy of ignoring technical breaches of the law relating to prostitution.
Harley was, of course, entirely in agreement with Brian. There was no point wasting valuable police and court resources enforcing laws that forbade what was, if you looked at it in a certain light, a useful social service.
Naturally, the ladies of the night thoroughly endorsed this approach to policing and understood that their part of the bargain was to behave with discretion and decorum in public. Alas, for some of them, this proved to be easier said than done.
One of the town's more notorious ladies of the night (who I shall refer to by the pseudonym Sylvia) was brought before Harley charged with being drunk and disorderly, creating a public nuisance and resisting arrest.
It seems that Sylvia had rendered certain services to a man who had then reneged on his obligation to pay and decamped at high speed to the hotel.
Fuelled by large quantities of SP lager, Sylvia had pursued the customer into the pub, where she proceeded to lambast him about his dishonesty and describe in some detail what she regarded as his unusually small and ineffectual manhood.
Eventually, at the publican's request, the police arrived to intervene in what had become a very loud and lively exchange of views between Sylvia and virtually everyone else in the bar.
Thus it was that a contrite and possibly hung over Sylvia came to be standing in the dock, eyes demurely downcast, under the stern gaze of Harley Dickinson RM.
The police prosecutor was able to give a detailed and vivid account of the previous night's proceedings which, under questioning from the bench, Sylvia agreed was a fair and accurate summary. She pleaded guilty to all charges and stood ready to accept her fate.
Before sentencing her, Harley took the opportunity to deliver a little lecture about what constituted proper and acceptable behaviour in public and of the importance of respecting the police.
In particular, he stressed that kicking and biting the constabulary fell well short of the behaviour expected of a respectable person, even when drunk.
Sylvia appeared to accept these comments in the spirit in which they were given and hung her head in shame.
Not wishing to imprison Sylvia for what was just a momentary lapse, and bearing in mind the provocation involved, Harley fined her the then considerable sum of $50.
When asked if she wished to pay the fine immediately, Sylvia answered ‘yes’, reaching into her bilum and withdrawing a large roll of notes. She peeled off the required sum and handed it to the Clerk of the Court.
A surprised and amused Harley then ordered that she be released to go about her business, with a warning that should she appear before him again she could expect sterner treatment.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, it was not too long before Sylvia once again appeared in the dock. The charges were the same but this time one of the arresting officers had sustained a savage and painful blow to the groin that had required medical treatment and time off work.
Clearly, Sylvia's propensity for violence was escalating. Something had to be done to drive home the point that such behaviour would not be tolerated.
So Harley decided a term of imprisonment was warranted. He decided that three months in the local correctional facility would be an appropriate penalty. Sylvia's healthy financial situation would be of no use to her this time.
She was handed into the custody of the Department of Correctional Services, loaded into their paddy wagon and transported to the prison, which was situated only a short distance out of town.
And that, thought Harley, is the last I will hear about Sylvia for at least three months. It proved to be a forlorn hope.
About a month later, Harley had a visit from the Chief Warden at the prison, who wished to discuss a delicate matter.
The obviously embarrassed officer, speaking in hushed tones, explained that several of his officers, not to mention a number of prisoners, had recently developed an illness that required treatment with large injections of penicillin. Worse still, the wives of some of his officers had also developed the same illness. All was not well.
The Chief Warden's investigations into this sudden outbreak of infection revealed that the source was one of the female prisoners, namely Sylvia.
It seems the redoubtable Sylvia had taken advantage of her proximity to so many potential customers and continued to ply her trade within the prison. After all, there was no point in losing valuable income just because she was temporarily accommodated at Her Majesty's pleasure.
Unhappily, Sylvia was not to know that, in the course of her commercial transactions, she was busily infecting her customers with a painful affliction which could be passed on to others.
Considering these unhappy circumstances, the Chief Warden wondered if Harley might see his way clear to grant Sylvia a remission on her sentence, leaving him to try to re-establish some sense of order and normality at the prison.
Harley agreed to do this but only on the condition that Sylvia was compelled under the provisions of the Public Health Act to undergo treatment which would continue until the local doctor certified that she was disease free. Then, she would presumably resume her trade without posing a risk to public health at least for a while.
In telling me this story, Harley said he thought that it was an object lesson in how good intentions could spiral into disaster and that, maybe, the interests of the law and of public health might be better served by regulating prostitution rather than continuing obviously futile attempts to prevent or curtail it.
After all, humans can't help being humans, can they?