A special unit in this prison houses Australia’s most dangerous extremists. We gain rare access and discover a ticking time-bomb
The Muslim yard at Goulburn SuperMax.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN MAGAZINE, APRIL 1-2, 2017
STORY: PAUL MALEY | PHOTOGRAPHY: GUY BAILEY
Five times a day, Goulburn’s SuperMax goes quiet. The din of jail life stops as the 30-odd Muslim inmates angle their bottle-green prayer mats towards Mecca. Standing alone in their narrow cells, they raise their arms in supplication and, with eyes closed, recite the holy incantations of the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first verse of the Holy Koran and the beginning of the Muslims’ Divine Communion with God. Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem. Alhamdu lillaahi Rabbil ’aalameen…
A few hundred metres away, in the general prison, dozens more inmates are doing the same thing. Under a soggy grey sky, they kneel in the exercise yard and pray as guards carrying high-powered assault rifles patrol the 5.5m-high walls around them. There’s no trouble today; there rarely is during prayers.
Out in the main prison population, religion is a source of comfort or just another diversion from the drudgery of jail life. Not so in the SuperMax. Here, religion remains an obsession. It is the reason most of the inmates were locked up and, as the years tick over on their time here, it’s what’s kept them going.
Anyone who thinks Australia does not have a problem with prison radicalisation should visit SuperMax during prayer time. They are all here. The names and faces behind a thousand headlines heralding mayhem and death. And with a handful of exceptions, the entire population of the SuperMax observes this daily ritual. They all believe the same thing: “There is no God but Allah and this is where He wants me.” For now.
When Islamic State broke through the Syrian border in June 2014, annexing northern Iraq and declaring a caliphate, Australia’s prisons filled with a new generation of Muslim extremists ensnared by the ISIS ideology of do-it-yourself violence. In Australia, 62 people were charged after 27 separate counter-terrorism operations in little more than two years. A problem that once lurked in mosques, chat rooms and obscure prayer halls was transferred, en masse, into the prison system. That was the good news. The bad news is they are more dangerous than they have ever been, their radical beliefs entrenched in the same system that locked them up in the first place.
And soon, some of them will be up for release. A system that is supposed to remove threats from the community is, in fact, incubating them for future generations.
The first thing you notice about Goulburn’s High Risk Management Correctional Centre, to give the SuperMax its official name, is that it looks nothing like a prison. Built in 2001 in the NSW city 90km north-east of Canberra as a place to house the state’s most violent offenders, it is concealed behind the soaring walls and grim Victorian façade of Goulburn’s historic jail, a fortress within a fortress. The corridors are wide, the lights are bright and cherry-red doors with observation windows provide access to every cell. There is no mess hall, no shower block. No tattooed cons pumping iron in the yard. Common areas don’t exist in SuperMax. On some days it might be possible to walk the entire length of the prison without encountering a single inmate.
Glen Piazza, SuperMax’s manager of security, is our guide for this rare glimpse into Australia’s most secretive prison. Piazza is an affable 50-something who’s been working in Corrections for nearly 30 years, five in the pressure-cooker of SuperMax. He’s got a broad Australian accent and a black sense of humour. “Remember, if you get raped, it’s just jail sex,” he says, as we’re about to enter the prison. You get the feeling it’s not the first time he’s used this line.
Glenn Piazza speaks with a prison inmate.
SuperMax is divided into three units, Piazza explains. Unit Nine is where unsentenced prisoners are kept. Unit Eight holds convicted prisoners serving out long sentences up to 20 years or more. Unit Seven houses prisoners for the first 14 days of their sentence while they are being assessed. Nobody is sentenced to SuperMax. Everybody here has been sent because they were too hard to manage in other prisons or because of their link to terrorism. Thirty of the prison’s 48 inmates are here for terrorist-related offences.
We head first to Unit Nine, a horseshoe-shaped row of cells with an enclosed observation area in the middle where the prison officers huddle like soldiers in a pillbox. This is effectively a remand centre for NSW’s most dangerous men. We have been here just a few minutes and already the shouting from the banks of locked cells has begun. “Why don’t you tell them about the oppression inside SuperMax!”
In some countries, radical inmates are dispersed across the prison system, an approach that is supposed to make deradicalisation easier. But here in NSW they are grouped together, quarantined from other prisoners like patients stricken with a deadly virus. The idea is they can’t radicalise other prisoners and in practice it works well enough. They radicalise each other instead. The names of prisoners are written on cards outside their cells along with the details of their sentence. Virtually all are of Middle Eastern background.
One of the conditions of our visit is that we do not name inmates, but they are recognisable enough. Australia’s most notorious serial killer is here. The fearsome muscles and piercing black eyes that terrified his seven known victims in their last moments are gone. More than 20 years into his sentence, he’s an old man now. He is sitting at a concrete desk writing letters, something he does incessantly. He mops the floors for extra milk rations. In any other jail he’d be just another sad old crim seeing out the years, but here in the SuperMax he looks oddly out of place. It says much about the transformation of SuperMax from high-risk prison to holding pen for Muslim radicals that not even the serial killers fit in. Piazza says this prisoner would normally be up on Deck Eight, but they brought him down here because he’s been doing it tough. Some break.
In the cell next to him is a rangy Lebanese boy with a mohawk haircut and a chest full of tatts. I recognise him, too. In April last year he was moved from Kempsey Prison to the SuperMax after he bashed his cellmate, doused him in boiling water and carved “E4E” (eye for an eye) into his forehead. His victim was a former Australian army reservist and it’s believed this was an ISIS-inspired attack. Certainly it was enough to get him transferred to SuperMax, where he has since been charged with plotting a terror attack on Bankstown Police Station. He also allegedly threatened to cut off the head of Peter Severin, the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner. He sweeps the floor and glowers at us malevolently.
A few cells down is a young man at the centre of Australia’s biggest terrorism plot. He was arrested in September 2014 over an alleged conspiracy to abduct and behead a random member of the public. “Why don’t you report the truth and that’s the oppression of your so-called government,” he yells through the glass. There is a lot of this. In the minds of most inmates there is no difference between a targeted military campaign and cutting a bloke’s head off in Sydney’s Martin Place. If anything, they think the former is worse.
Visits like this are rare in SuperMax and already the prisoners are getting toey. Young men with bushy Salafist beards press their faces against the heavy safety glass in their cell doors. Before long the shouting starts. “Power to Islam!” “The truth shall set you free!” and “Allahu Akbar!” Piazza can feel the tension rising; you’d have to be made of granite not to. He doesn’t want the inmates too riled up – it creates problems for staff later in the day. We move on.
Deck Eight is quieter. The prisoners here are older and less excited by our visit. SuperMax rules allow prisoners to consort with no more than one inmate at a time so some are in pairs wandering in and out of each other’s cells. I peer through one cell door and see a man in his 40s sitting alone on his bed reading from a sheaf of papers. He tugs at his beard and makes notes with a pen. On the outside he ran a recruitment network for al-Qa’ida, funnelling dozens of young radicals into the maw of the Syrian jihad. To the cops he was an A-grade coward, content to send countless young Australians to their deaths but lacking the bottle to jump on a plane himself. I’m told he wept uncontrollably when he arrived in SuperMax. He sees us and raises a single hand in greeting.
Prisoners spend at least 16 hours a day in their cells. They eat in them, shower in them, defecate in them. They can have a radio, TV and kettle. No internet. Depending on their behaviour they might be allowed into the exercise yard where they can play handball, basketball or work out on the chin-up bars. If they’re really good they get access to the running track at the centre of the complex. The track’s small but hard to miss. It’s slathered in netting to stop contraband being hurled in – or a helicopter landing.
Security is an obsession inside SuperMax. When prisoners first arrive they are stripped naked and placed in an observation cell. Their entire body is x-rayed using a so-called “boss chair”, a throne-like device that fires x-rays at the head, feet, torso and rectum, the cavity of choice for those wishing to smuggle contraband past the officers. Piazza says that over the years staff have retrieved knives, drugs and phones, which are a valuable commodity in prison. “The best one I’ve seen is a phone and a charger,” he says. “That was in 2006. Imagine how big the phone was.”
Prisoners sit in the boss chair after every visit or court appearance. They move cells every 28 days and when they move through the prison they are accompanied by a minimum of two guards. When their relatives or solicitors visit they must sit, Hannibal Lecter-style, in sealed Perspex boxes, so-called “safe interview spaces”. Their mail is read, scanned and stored. Their conversations with visitors are live-monitored. Conversations in languages other than English are banned.
This is how SuperMax works. Not with muscle or threats but with a rigid adherence to rules and discipline. Strip a life down to its rudiments, take away a man’s contact with the outside world, his possessions, his freedom, force him to seek permission if he wants to hold his wife’s hand during a visit – narrow his life to the point where the most exciting thing that can happen in six months is a visit from a journalist – and you don’t need phone books or rubber hoses to keep order. All you need is extra milk rations.
A SuperMax cell.
It wasn’t supposed to be quite like this. When the Carr government opened SuperMax back in 2001, the plan was for a maximum security prison that would be used to house the state’s most difficult offenders. Escapees, psychopaths, crime bosses – this was SuperMax’s core business. Then came 9/11 and, more than a decade later, the age of ISIS. A prison that had been built to handle the system’s toughest crooks became a holding pen for Muslim terrorists, the most radical square mile in all of Australia. “We’ve got a completely different set of inmates than in the main jail,” says Scott Ryan, SuperMax’s head of intelligence. “There’s very little violence. They’re a lot smarter.”
Working in SuperMax is uniquely stressful for staff. The inmates hate them, calling them kuffars or dogs. Some won’t even talk to the female staff. As we are leaving, one of the officers tells us: “I don’t want my picture. I’ve got a family.”
But as dangerous as these men are, there is a growing view that many do not belong in the SuperMax. Increasingly, experts are questioning the wisdom of housing young offenders in the same facility as older, die-hard extremists. Australian National University deradicalisation expert Dr Clarke Jones says SuperMax is the right place for violent, difficult prisoners but the wrong place for younger inmates who might, under the right circumstances, be separated from their radical ideologies. In Victoria, he adds, radical inmates are spread throughout the system.“
There’s a long history of psychological evidence that it becomes more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners over the age of 25,” Jones says. “But under 25, there’s a good chance.” Vocational training, religious counselling and physical contact with their family – these are the elements that need to be in place if younger inmates are to be diverted from radicalism. “Virtually none of that is available in SuperMax.”
And SuperMax’s population is getting younger, much younger. Across the fence in Goulburn jail proper, the prison population is divided by race or religion. There is a Muslim yard, an Islander yard, an Aboriginal yard and an Asian yard. Multiculturalism might work in the real world but in Goulburn it is segregation that keeps the peace.
In SuperMax, the division is even simpler: al-Qa’ida and Islamic State. The older, sentenced prisoners support al-Qa’ida. The younger ones, energised by the Syrian jihad, support Islamic State. Two tribes. They don’t get along.
“They really have nothing to do with each other,” Ryan tells me. “They’ll be polite to each other. The older fellas will look at [them] as young punks – ‘they know nothing about the Koran, they know nothing about our struggles’ and all of this. The younger ones will look at the older ones, ‘Oh, these old has-beens. This is the new way. All that stuff’s out now.’ There’s a big division in that.” Al-Qa’ida supporters are held in Unit Eight, where the average age of prisoners is 35. Islamic State supporters are in Unit Nine, where the average age is just 21.
The al-Qa’ida terrorists sentenced after 9/11 are starting to come up for parole. A few are already out. Khaled Sharrouf did a brief spell in SuperMax after he was convicted over his involvement in the 2005 terror plot to bomb targets in Sydney and Melbourne. It didn’t do much good. In 2013 Sharrouf fled for Syria, where he was last seen brandishing severed heads and executing Iraqi officials in the sands outside Mosul.
In August this year, Bilal Khazal, a 46-year-old former baggage handler convicted of making a terrorist training manual, will chance his arm before the parole board. There is a reasonable prospect he will get out. In early 2019, Ahmad Naizmand, a 22-year-old convicted of breaching a terrorism control order, will do the same. The others will start dribbling out in the years after that. I ask Ryan how many remain hard-core radicals. He thinks for a moment. “You could probably put on the one hand the ones that aren’t.”
Inmates behind bars.
New federal government laws that would allow authorities to detain unrepentant extremists beyond the term of their sentence would, in theory, apply to many of SuperMax’s inhabitants. NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Severin says that, as it stands, virtually all of SuperMax’s sentenced terrorists would be candidates for the new sanction. But the legislation is untested. Besides, there are 30 Muslim extremists in SuperMax. Locking them all up indefinitely is not a realistic option, not if you want to avoid turning SuperMax into Guantanamo Bay. At some point they’re going to rejoin the community.
Corrective Services NSW offers a voluntary deradicalisation program, the Proactive Integrated Support Model or PRISM, but it is aimed at those at risk of radicalisation, not those already in its grip. Of the 13,000 prisoners in NSW jails, about 20 are signed up to the program. It is hard to know how effective PRISM is, but if it is like any other deradicalisation program the answer is, probably, not very.
The rise of Islamic State has spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry in so-called “countering violent extremism” programs. None claims a convincing success rate; most are abject failures. None of this is news to Piazza. “Nobody in the world knows what to do with these guys,” he says.
For the older terrorists, the point is moot. They’re too far gone. A few won’t talk to the staff anymore, let alone participate in deradicalisation programs. In the years he’s spent walking the corridors of SuperMax, Piazza has seen little evidence the men in his charge are ready to change. “When someone gets to that age of 40, they go, ‘F..k, you know what? I’ve had enough of this shit.’ Well, now we’re getting guys who are 50-51 years of age and they’re still going.” I ask Ryan what would happen if the older ones were thrown in with the general prison population. “They’d recruit. Simple as that.”
But for the younger ones, the picture is different. Ryan estimates that if all the unsentenced prisoners in SuperMax were released tomorrow, around half would never touch a Koran again: “They’re not that committed to the cause.” He thinks some of the younger prisoners might shed their extremist ideology if they could be separated from the older, harder ideologues early into their sentence. He describes what it’s like when prisoners first arrive in SuperMax. “They’ll be down in Unit Seven all by themselves and you can talk to them there,” he says. “After that initial shock, they’re polite. Then you get them up to the other deck with other influences and that’s when you lose them.”
Severin acknowledges the challenges of trying to rehabilitate hardened jihadis inside the SuperMax but to him the priority is clear. “For me, the responsibility to the rest of the system and the broader community, and national security for that matter, outweighs the negative effects that the concentration of those individuals might have.”
He has hinted this will change in the future. Last year Severin said Corrective Services NSW was examining a “differentiated” placement system, one that could see radical inmates separated. A report by NSW Inspector of Custodial Services Fiona Rafter, who was tasked last year with examining prison radicalisation, is likely to make similar recommendations. Corrective Services is also looking at a system that will allow radical inmates to be moved downward through the system prior to release.
Severin says that outside the SuperMax there is no widespread problem of radicalisation across the prison system, and by all accounts he is right. Of the 13,000 inmates confined in NSW, there have been just four confirmed cases where inmates have been radicalised, he says. That’s almost certainly an underestimate, but it’s hard to make the case that the prison system is teeming with murderous jihadis. When we visit the Muslim yard in Goulburn jail proper, the inmates make a show of praying but seem far more interested in horsing around for the cameras. This isn’t to make light of their beliefs or be naive about their crimes, but it seems anything but a hotbed of radical preaching. In two days wandering the yards of Goulburn they are the friendliest bunch of blokes we meet.
But as SuperMax starts disgorging its inmates, the risk to the community will be profound. None of this is the fault of Piazza and his staff. They are not social workers. They are prison officers whose job is to protect the community, something they do exceptionally well and under the most trying conditions. But thinking of the rangy Lebanese boy with the chest full of tatts prowling his cell like a caged animal, it is difficult not to believe we are kicking the can down the road. What happens when we get to the end?
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