Here, There are Dragons by Witness J, Robert Macklin (Foreword), Julian Burnside AO QC (Foreword)

‘After secretly serving 455, days in prison, I was released on recognizance in August 2019 and quietly re-entered society.’

Witness J, I have read, was Australia’s first recorded secret prisoner. This book does not tell us why Witness J was imprisoned for 455 days in the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC). He was housed with sex offenders and paedophiles because they are set apart from the AMC’s general prison population for their own protection.

It is disconcerting, reading an account of life in prison without some knowledge of why a person has been imprisoned. I want to be able to make my own judgments about this anonymous man’s crime and punishment, but I cannot. Instead, I read about some of the other men incarcerated (I have lived in Canberra for a long time and recognise several of the names mentioned) and the dynamics of prison life in this part of the AMC.

As Julian Burnside AO QC writes in his foreword:

‘The book considers the philosophical question J has struggled with: can you accept the humanity of people like these and not lose yourself in the process?’

I find this a difficult question to consider, especially in relation to sexual predators and paedophiles. What defines an individual’s humanity? Do (some) people cease to be considered human because of the crimes they commit? Witness J, I read, is a decorated Duntroon graduate and former military and civilian intelligence officer. His observations of life in prison: the social hierarchy, the conflicts and (some) of the people make for a thought-provoking read. I wonder, too, about the humanity of a process which incarcerates a man in secret. In 21st century Australia.

Many questions here, fewer answers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith