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Macmillian Australia
RRP: $32.95

This powerful and unforgettable autobiography of a convicted armed robber and serial prison escapee is not for the faint hearted.

Intractable is the story of Bernie Matthews from reform schools to award-winning journalist and doesn’t claim to be a balanced view of the harshest of the New South Wales and Queensland prisons.

This is an ex-prisoner telling people what it was like to be on the inside. Within the first five pages, I found myself siding with the prisoners rather than the people who held them there.

Intractable tells how the routine abuse and brutality continues to transform prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes (e.g. fraud) into violent criminals on return to society.

Matthews began writing to relieve his mind from the boredom of a windowless 2.5m by 3.5m cell in the “electronic zoo”, Katingal, a NSW correctional services experiment into sensory deprivation.

One psychologist said six months or more in Katingal would leave inmates with “irreparable psychological and psychiatric problems”. Matthews survived there for two years and eight months, almost the entire time it was open.

As editor of the Parramatta Prison magazine, Matthews began honing his writing and interview skills. He came to the realisation that the outside world did not believe anything an inmate said or wrote so he began to work at changing that.

This is the story of a broken man whose buddies were some of the most feared crims in the country at the time.

Matthews shows them for who they are: people. Some tough, some evil, some broken, some innocent, but all human beings.

I’m not sure how Matthews survived the physical and mental horrors of maximum security prisons, but I’m glad he did because this is a story that needed to be told.

Reviewed by Mardi Lumsden