Australia's National Prison Newspaper

Australia's National
Prison Newspaper

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JULY 2024


JULY 2024




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What to do with a ‘brick’ up my sleeve – my prison journey

By Daniel Vansetten

Daniel Vansetten spent around 12 years in prison and has since gone on to study a Bachelor of Laws at university. He uses his lived experience and study to advocate for prison reform, providing volunteer services to prison reform advocates across Australia.

Willy Pleasance

Before I start my story, I give a shout-out to my good friend Jim. Imprisoned since 1989, around 35 years and counting, he still manages to smile and have a good laugh when around the right lads. Jim taught me that ‘we are all in a box, some boxes are just bigger than others.’ I like to think we have the power to think how we want and make the most of whatever box we are in. 

‘Fourteen and half years with around 10 years (a brick) non-parole.’ Those were the words resonating in my head as I was escorted through the back corridors of the Supreme Court to the holding cell after sentencing. I remember my inability to comprehend what it would be like to wait around for that length of time but, strange as it sounds, I also felt a sense of relief from the uncertainty caused by being on remand awaiting sentencing. Once sentenced, I finally had an endpoint to focus on. 

As the months went by, I started to think about what could be done in that time. I started to see time in a different light. Rather than dwell on being in prison, I accepted my position and saw time in prison as an opportunity to apply myself to something without the usual distractions of the ‘free world’. For the first time in my life, I felt unburdened by time. I had a ‘brick’ up my sleeve and just had to work out what to do with it. 

It didn’t take long to find something to focus on. Injustices often occurred in prison. The lack of resources hampered a lot of processes and often resulted in a lack of meaningful assistance. Most staff seemed indifferent to these issues, likely because they themselves were powerless to make a difference. The greatest cost was to the effectiveness of case management and rehabilitation processes. Many of the guys lacked experience in dealing with administrative and bureaucratic processes and were often railroaded through their sentence with a sense of helplessness. It felt as though there was an unspoken rule that the less prisoners knew about the processes, the better. The contradiction against the idea that prisons are places for rehabilitation was blatantly obvious. 

So, that’s where my journey began to take direction. One small step at a time, I started to gather information about the prison administration, how it works, how it’s meant to work, who is responsible for what, and what rights we had. I learnt from guys who’d spent longer than me in jail, who’d themselves learnt from experience with processes. I learnt from writing letters to management and external agencies. I started to help others draft formal letters for parole, home detention, legal aid applications, etc. There was lots of trial and error. After some years, I finally got access to a computer. I spent 15-20 minutes every weekday, over about two years, learning how to touch type – driven by the thought that the faster I could type, the more letters I could produce for others. 

My spare time slowly vanished. I would help as many lads as possible to learn about the processes and their rights. Some staff supported my efforts. But some thought I was too helpful. They acted outside normal protocol to restrict my access to computers where possible. I was encouraged to work in other areas of the prison, in the kitchen, industries, anywhere but the education centre. They were signs that my efforts were making a difference, and it motivated me even more. 

It's now been 12 and half years since that day in the Supreme Court. Now on parole, I am halfway through a law degree at university and working with prison reform advocates around the country. While my parole conditions currently prevent me directly helping any person in prison, I have not for one second forgotten the people in prison who have been, and who are still, subjected to the injustice and inadequacies of the prison system. I am thankful for the injustice I experienced — it is that injustice that drove me to study law, to achieve things I would have otherwise never achieved. I am committed to continue to advocate against the injustices in whatever way I can. 

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