Kate's story

Kate Lawrence - IMCL lawyer, 1994-2001

Former IMCL lawyer Kate Lawrence compèred the proceedings at our 40th Anniversary party on 16 August 2018, recounting a time working in a women's prison as an IMCL lawyer. This is her story.

When I first went to prison I was 32, it was 1994 and I was well educated, middleclass, white-bread, vanilla and innocent. And I was terrified.

I was going to prison because a brilliant community activist, prisons-rights lawyer Amanda George had suggested that I might be a good person to go in and teach women in the women’s prison about criminal law. This was despite the fact that I had no experience at all in criminal law. I had only just started working at the North Melbourne Legal Service and had one criminal client who had watched me misspell the word “criminal” on the Legal Aid application form in my nervousness. Within a few days we had received a request from her new lawyers to pass the file on to them. 

But not letting inexperience get in the way of opportunity, I said yes and so I found myself at the Fairlea Women’s prison. It had big concrete walls and enormous big metal cylinders on the top of the walls. I went through security and I was met by Marg. She was the education coordinator at the prison, and we went across the prison compound to two portable classrooms. We were a bit early, so I sat down and just waited wide-eyed and my ears open as women, real women prisoners came and went about their business and I took it all in.

We then got the class going and I explained that I didn’t have any experience with criminal law, as it would soon become very obvious. I then pull out my four pages of densely typed notes taken straight from Simple and Stupid’s Guide to Criminal Law and I began to read.

Marg expertly and gently asked me a question, interrupting me and then invited the rest of the women to a conversation. That’s when my criminal law education began.

But those women, and all of the women in that prison, were within a year transferred out of that prison from the custody of the state to the custody of a private company, whose sole goal was to make profit from their incarceration and it was a disaster from day one. I was part of the corrections working group and we were acting as watchdogs at that prison. About a year later, when I had a bit more criminal law experience, I was asked to go and see this woman at the prison. She had been involved in a riot and was facing a charge of criminal damage.

On a blue winter’s day I drove across the desolate western plains of Melbourne, to the city’s edge, to the double razor wire and I was seated across a glass partition from Max. We go through the formalities and then I say, “So tell me what happened?”

She said “This is bullshit! This place is out of control. They’ve got no idea what they’re doing in here. They have us in lockdown for 8 hours and then they took Chelsea, they were beating her up! I did the only thing I could; I smashed their supposedly unbreakable window and when we got out it was chaos. Mary, Mary had a knife! Mary, she just wants to see her kids, there’s not enough staff for children’s visits.”

I replied “Okay Max, that’s pretty bad. What I think we’re going to have to do is that you’ll have to plead guilty to the charge of criminal damage but I’m hoping that we don’t get you anymore time.”

“Geez, I don’t wanna do more time in this place, not for this!”

“Well I’ll do my best. What I’d really like to do though Max, is to take this case and get some publicity, maybe put a bit of pressure on the government and on the prison. But if there are repercussions, I get to go home at night; you’re the one who stays here.”

Without hesitation, she looked at me and said, “You do what you have to do. This place is fucked. Women get slashed in here. Women are bashing each other, no one is safe in here.”

As I drove home that day, I remembered why Max was familiar to me. A couple of years before, I had seen her in a play at the women’s prison. I knew that she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse – as are most women in prison – and that she had a heroin addiction and that at about twenty, she lost the love of her life to the needle.

I went and saw Max a few more times and we got ready for the case. Standing in court, I quoted from those guard’s statements that “We had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t find the keys. We didn’t know how to work the intercom. We couldn’t open the gate to let the firetruck in. We weren’t allowed to call the police.”

The press were all there. They were writing it down, outside they were doing interviews on TV and radio, and it was going to be on the papers. It was a publicity success – but not so for Max.

Because the magistrate in his wisdom sentenced Max to another week on top of her previous sentence. It may not seem like much to you but a week is the same length of time in a hell hole as it is for anyone. It was with a heavy heart that I went down to see Max in the cells under the Melbourne Magistrate’s court. Max did not blame me, of course she didn’t, but I did. If only I focused on her case more than the publicity, if only I had said this and not said that, I could’ve convinced that magistrate. And what was the point of any of it anyway? Zip, zilch, zero had changed – there’d be no inquiry, that contract was good for another 25 years. I had sacrificed Max to tilt a windmill. 

So that night when Max was in her cell and the story was on the news, I found myself driving around the botanical gardens. I had to pull in to the dense, dark shade of a Moreton Bay fig for the waves of failure and frustration to wash over me.

Over the next few years, there were more terrible things that happened at that women’s prison and good lawyers like Amanda George and Shelly Burchfield, good community lawyers worked hard to be the public watchdog of what was happening and I helped – but a little part of me had lost hope.

But then in October 2000, the unthinkable happened; I woke to the news that the state government had used its emergency powers to step in and take over control of the only private women’s prison outside of the United States. And then they cancelled the contract and it’s remained in government hands ever since.

It was small vindication for Max and that extra week she served, and it told me loud and clear that you never know. You never know what impact you might be having. Systemic, seismic, meaningful change is always a possibility and community legal centres are essential for a good justice system and a good democracy.

So that’s my story. And that’s what you do when you become an anti-lawyer; you go and tell stories about how change is possible through community legal centres and community lawyers.

I did lose faith in the law but I sometimes regret losing the capacity to have an influence and to work to see change happen. It was a deeply formative time for me at North Melbourne Legal Service where I worked for seven years. It was also a fantastic place to work. I take my hat off to the founders of that organisation and I know we are going to hear from one of them here tonight. I also want to honour and pay my respects to the communities, to the residents, to the people of Parkville, West Melbourne, the CBD and North Melbourne for their tacit permission for the legal centre to exist and a particular nod to the people of the high-rise public housing estate in North Melbourne.

To think that there’s an entity that we’re all bound to through time that none of us own but we all feel connected to is a surprise to me. Community legal centres are extremely important and a vital part of the justice system. I don’t know if North Melbourne Legal Service or Inner Melbourne Community Legal is one of the best, or the best, or better than Fitzroy, or better than Coburg or Ballarat…

What I do know is that it is the only community legal centre that’s got a place in my heart and has a deep place in my personal history.

“To think that there's an entity that we're all bound to through time, that none of us own but we all feel connected to, is a surprise to me."

Kate Lawrence addressing the crowd.