Jimmy’s story

Jun 12, 2022
Handcuffed - hands covered in words of racism, bias, oppression - an illustration
Image: Pixabay /John Hain (cropped)

Looking back it is hard to believe, at 36, I could have been so naïve. Despite having lived overseas for nearly half my life and having travelled extensively through Europe and both North and South America, I was largely innocent of the dark side of human behaviour. It wasn’t until I returned to Australia and started in the Corrective Services Industry that I was baptised into the degrading sub-culture of prison work which is designed to break people, rather than rehabilitate them. Even now, stories surface from time to time telling of the atrocities that prisoners – Aborigines, in particular – suffer within the penal system. As an ex-prison guard, I know, only too well, just how true those tales are.

I vividly remember the first time I saw Jimmy, as he lurched around the corner at the end of the hallway, 6th Floor, Ward 3, West Wing, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide. I couldn’t remember having ever seen anyone so black. He seemed to have a deep, dark, shine, contrasting the whites of his eyes, like diamonds on velvet. The v-lines in his face looked like they had been carved there, giving him an appearance of age. He was otherwise smooth-skinned. His collar-length hair was dark, disheveled and curly, but his short whiskers were silver. The crushed and soiled clothes hanging on him were prison issue, two sizes too big; a centuries-old game played by gaolers to belittle a man.

Jimmy walked towards me unassisted, but with a pronounced limp, hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.  Something about the image seemed oddly regal. His breathing was laboured. I judged that he probably smoked heavily.

The two men accompanying him had obviously shared a joke moments before, both still smirking. One of them was holding a transparent plastic bag containing Jimmy’s toiletries and a few clothes which he placed on a nearby table. Unhurried, I gripped the arms of my chair, twisted to the left and right and, still stretching, I stood and leaned on my desk as they approached.

Jimmy stopped only a few steps from me, opposite the Namatjira print which graced the wall. Slowly he hung his head, looking down at the floor in a way that resembled a robot that had suddenly lost its power. Something in the action pained me. The smaller of the two men stayed with Jimmy as the other approached me. I extended my hand to introduce myself but ignoring the gesture, instead, he threw a large brown envelope containing Jimmy’s papers on the desk and, at the same time, turned his head away to study nothing in particular elsewhere. I looked down, gave an indiscernible head shake, and thought to myself, ‘Why bother?’ I immediately unsealed the envelope and, removing the papers, shuffled through the file until I located Jimmy’s movement warrant authorising his medical appointment.  After a quick scan I went to Jimmy and stood before him.

“G’day Jimmy. Can you give me your date of birth, mate?” No answer. “Jimmy?” No response. Just beyond Jimmy’s shoulder I caught a glimpse of the small guy smiling across at his partner. He didn’t know I’d seen him, so I ignored it. I bent forward just enough to be able to make eye contact with Jimmy, thinking to try a different tack. Suddenly Mr. Friendly, behind me spoke,

“He doesn’t speak our lingo, Gringo.”

I frowned and straightened up, turning my head towards the voice but said nothing.

The voice continued, “Spare your efforts. He hasn’t said a word since Alice Springs. Nada, nothing. Either he doesn’t know how to talk or doesn’t want to. He’s tribal, so he probably only speaks mumbo-jumbo anyway. You gunna have mucho fun, Amigo. We sure did, hey Chris!” he said, winking at his offsider.

I could feel my throat constricting and heartbeat quicken almost instantly. I had worked with Klansmen like this before, and I knew the only way to bring a quick end to their play was to get my charge away from them. Before I could do that, however, I needed to make a positive identification on Jimmy. Since I couldn’t elicit any verbal responses I decided to search through his papers to see if I could locate his Personal Information Document, which would have his photo attached. The bright green paper made it easy to find. After studying the attached photo, I read what I needed from the file to satisfy myself. This was Jimmy Alinga, Address: Mparntwe Mission – Alice Springs. D.O.B.: Unknown. Next of Kin: Unknown.Allergies: Unknown. Religion: Unknown…unknown…unknown…

If Jimmy’s Prosecutor didn’t fear retribution, he probably would have filled in the gaps with; “Don’t care…”, “Who gives a damn…?”, “He’s black…and he’s poor…and he’s a prisoner…and I wish we could just lynch him like the good ol’ days.”

I looked a little deeper and found the Warrant of Release which officially made Jimmy my prisoner, and signed it. Having handed it to the bi-lingual ape, I returned the papers to the envelope, picked up Jimmy’s bag, and turning to him said, “Let’s go get a cup of tea, Jimmy.”

I led him through the doorway, next to where the Namatjira hung, and showed him to his bed, before discretely returning to lock the door. It was a ‘secure’ room for Police and Correctional Services use. There was a self-contained clinic; a private bathroom; a high-backed easy-chair in the corner (with a wheelchair next to it); a standard hospital bed; the customary TV high on the opposite wall; tea and coffee supplies; and a large window facing west, which offered a soundless view of suburban Adelaide, the Semaphore Beach pines easily visible in the distance. Jimmy wasn’t looking. He had run out of power again and was standing by the bed with his head down, hands still behind his back. I instinctively pinched my chin between my thumb and forefinger, one of the quirks my wife tells me I exhibit when an intuitive moment strikes. Spurred on by a sickening thought, I put my hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and moved him a quarter-turn to look at his hands. He was cuffed.

I instantly repented for thinking earlier that he looked like an ambling prince, confident and carefree, and for thinking his shortness of breath was smoking-related. My mind raced as I tried to recall what Jimmy’s papers had said about his security status, prior convictions, conditions of travel, and so on. Nothing untoward came to mind. I quickly emptied the envelope onto the bed, and, rifling through the papers, searched for all the flags that would tell me Jimmy was dangerous, or an escape risk, or likely to self-harm. Nothing. There was only one other circumstance, therefore, that could justify Jimmy being legally handcuffed under Federal guidelines for the interstate transport of a prisoner –Discretionary Powers. Feeling like a doom-saying Oracle, I slowly picked up the Daily Occurrence Log and read from the record. The lines written two days earlier confirmed my fears. Words I had seen too often before, penned by men and women, who, quite simply, loved power too much and humans too little: 23 November, 0700 – Prisoner exhibiting non-compliant behaviour en-route to transport vehicle. Prisoner restrained with hand-cuffs. It was a water-tight argument that no court would ever reject. Looking to the ceiling, I let out an audible but restrained groan, then continued to quickly scan the remainder of the log.

Jimmy had been in transit for two days, reverse-cuffed-behind the entire time, the backs of his hands held together, immoveable because of the protruding styloid process at the base of the ulna forearm bone which prevented him from rotating his arms beneath the metal.

This also restricted his breathing and rendered his shoulders almost completely numb. In my initial training I had spent five days straight learning how “Restraining Devices” — as they were ambiguously known — could be used as weapons, and two days every year thereafter refreshing the knowledge I didn’t want. I still remember the first man I ever needed to cuff and the accompanying sensation; a mix of grief and humility. It’s a serious matter, taking away another human’s liberty. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to explain that the magistrate who forbade unrestrained prisoners in his courtroom was a frail, fearful little being, with no regard for human dignity —The Hatchet Man, as he was infamously known. Ironically, that same magistrate was himself led away in handcuffs a year later –meagre justice for three decades of stealing innocence from little boys in the darkness of his own home.

Satisfied that Jimmy was neither a threat nor an escape risk, especially given his condition, I decided to remove his cuffs. I went to the phone and dialled the Ward Desk. It rang and rang and rang. My mind wandered. I found myself thinking that the other end of the line was connected to a phone on an Aboriginal mission somewhere in the Red Centre and that a friend of Jimmy’s would pick it up. A horrible picture invaded my mind, a picture of Jimmy’s people sitting around a camp-fire suffering from diabetes, and heart disease and alcoholism, and a host of other illnesses bequeathed them by two-hundred years of European occupation.

“Ward three, this is Judy,” sighed a breathless little voice on the other end.

Silence.

“Hello? This is ward three, Judy speaking.”

“Oh, sorry Judy, hi. Umm, could we get a nurse in here, please?”

“Is there a problem, ….like a prisoner problem?” she asked, with more than a touch of anxiety.

“No..no! He’s fine, but he needs some help. It’s not an emergency, but it is urgent, if that makes sense.”
“Give me 5 minutes. I’ll be right there.” She hung up before I could say thanks. I put the receiver down and turned to Jimmy.

Standing directly in front of him and again bending forward slightly, I said quietly, “Jimmy, I’m pretty sure you can understand me, so I’m going to tell you what’s happening. I’m going to take those cuffs off you, OK? But first we’re going to wait for the nurse.”

His face was without expression, his body listless. He gave no indication that he understood what I was saying.

Nonetheless, I continued, “Just so you know, Jimmy, it’s going to hurt a little, OK?”, but I was thinking, Lots! It’s going to hurt lots! You’re going to wish I left them on. “Your wrists and arms are going to be a bit stiff and sore, so it’s best if a nurse is here to help.”

Just then I heard a key in the lock and the door swung open. A trim, white flash was in the room, re-locking the door before I could straighten up.

Looking past Jimmy, she said to me, “Hi. I palmed off a couple of things to the new girl so I could get in here quicker. What’s up?”

Moving to Jimmy’s side, I raised my hand in a sort of half-wave at Judy, and said, “This is Jimmy. Jimmy has just arrived from Alice Springs.”

She greeted Jimmy, and then I let the silence remain for a moment, knowing Judy would be thinking to herself, That flight can’t be more than an hour and a half, tops.

I moved a few steps towards her and added in a whisper, “In a prison truck. He has been hand-cuffed the entire time. We need to get them off him, and quickly.”

Predictably, Judy looked startled and asked, “Is that safe? I mean…why does he have them on if he doesn’t need them on?”

It was a reasonable question, and I told her so. Then, leaning closer, I went on in a measured volume so Jimmy couldn’t hear, per chance he did understand. “For the time being we need to get them off and restore optimal blood-flow to his arms.” Judy looked at me with a puzzled expression. “The cuffs,” I explained, “are holding his hands in a way that make it impossible for him to relieve any pressure on his wrists. After awhile it also causes numbness in the arms and shoulders. There won’t be any lasting damage, but it’s painful as hell when they come off.”

“How long has he been like this?” she asked. “He only just got here, right?”

“Yep, about five minutes ago, ten-thirty,” I replied, as I thought back on the words of the Ape, “You gunna have mucho fun, Amigo. We sure did, hey Chris.”Shaking the image, I went on, “The problems would have started about fifteen or twenty minutes after they cuffed him at Alice Springs, and that was two days ago.”

Judy clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. I bit my bottom lip. Jimmy stood stone-still and silent. “Let’s get to it,” she said, moving towards Jimmy.

I put my hand on his shoulder. “OK Jimmy, remember what I said. This is going to hurt a bit.”

Judy’s eyes met mine. She grimaced, then suddenly said, “Wait, I’ll grab some dressings.”

As she turned away I said, “Judy, I know you’re the nurse and all, but can I make a suggestion?”

“Sure, what?”

“For starters, it might pay to get a few damp sterile towels or packs or something; something cool but not cold.”

“Good idea,” she said, pulling a retractable cord from her belt and producing a key. She disappeared into the clinic.

I called after her and repeated, “Cool but not cold.”

I produced a small key of my own from my coin pocket, and, while giving Jimmy’s shoulder a slight, reassuring squeeze with my free hand, went behind his back. I hadn’t noticed the dried blood before; the background provided by Jimmy’s black skin being too close in colour. I donned a pair of surgical gloves from my First Aid pouch and gingerly unlocked both cuffs and released them as if I was disarming a bomb.

“Jimmy,” I warned him, “your arms are going to be a bit hard to move, so just take it slow and easy.” I placed the bloodied cuffs and my gloves in the small bag-lined bin next to the bathroom sink, and removing it, tied the top in a knot. Putting the bag on the floor, I washed my hands, all the time keeping Jimmy in my peripheral vision. He was, after all, still a prisoner, despite also being a patient in need of care. I then stood and looked at him. He stood there watching nothing. His eyes were open but not focused, his jaw granite-like, his arms behind his back, motionless.

Judy came barreling out of the clinic like she was competing in the Cox Plate, but stopped her gallop when she saw Jimmy’s hands unfettered. She moved next to me and asked, “What’s happening? How is he?”

Without looking at her, I answered, “He’ll be better once we get those towels on him to relieve the swelling”.

“You sound like you’ve done this a bit”.

Glancing in her direction, I murmured, “Unfortunately.” There was silence for a moment as I willed Jimmy’s arms to move. I found myself thinking that Judy must be either new at nursing or, against all odds, had retained her ability to empathise. Jimmy’s arms eased forward after a couple of minutes, and I walked him to the edge of the bed. He instinctively lay down and, when he did, I loosely wrapped one of the towels around his wrist.

Judy followed my lead. “I might get some warm packs for his upper arms and shoulders,” she said.

Nodding, I asked, “Would there be a physio still around?”

“I’m going to get some help to dress his wrists properly, and I’ll see if Kerry is still about. She’s been working with someone on Ward 2. I’ll also get the Registrar to drop in. Be right back.”

I picked up the cordless and punched the speed dial button connecting me to the Control Room back at base. Incoming calls from hospital watches always get answered quickly, being the most likely place for prisoners to escape from. I moved to the other side of the room still convinced Jimmy could understand me.

“Bravo Control”.

“Casey?”

“Rod. How’s it going’? Has the transfer happened yet?”

“Yeah, ‘bout 15 minutes ago. Just thought I should let you know he’s been cuffed behind on some trumped up charge.” There was a brief silence.

“How long?” she asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

“The entire trip,” I replied reluctantly, knowing it would hit one of Casey’s many exposed nerves. She had been a social worker in another life and wasn’t completely familiar with the ‘protocols’ of the Correctional Services Industry yet.

“What! Since Alice?”

“If the Log is anything to go by, yeah”.

I don’t know what to say. Does the Log say anything about food or water or toilet breaks? I expect not.”

Retrieving the log, I had a quick read. “No, nothing. Judging by the state of his clothes, he’s wearing what he left Alice in and hasn’t been given a shower.”

”Have you noted his condition-on-transfer in your Log?”

“Not yet. Really haven’t had time.”

“OK. Make sure you do. Copious notes, OK? Why do they even employ morons like that? I’ll start a Log here and get an enquiry going.”

Exasperated, Casey continued, “What’s happening now?”

“Ah…well, I’ve got the cuffs off and he’s resting on the bed with cool towels on his wrists and the nurse has just gone to get a physio and a doctor. They’ll take it from there, I suppose.”

“Alright. Have you got a leg-iron on him?”

I looked up and took a deep breath. “No, not yet.”

“Rod, you know the drill.”

“Yeah, I know…I know. As soon as he’s attended to, I’ll do it. He can hardly move, Casey, plus he’s got a gammy leg. Not sure what that’s about yet.”

“OK, well, keep me up to date. You’re off at 20:00 and back at 08:00, right?”

“Yep.”

“Wilson is your relief. Give him the run-down and remind him about keeping good notes. Make sure you log this call, OK?”

“Yep.”

“Rod?”

“Yes?”

“Get a leg-iron on him.”

I told her I would as I hung up the phone. I lied. I had no intention of subjecting Jimmy to any more humiliation. If we went outside I would need to use a chain to satisfy the hospital staff and public that they were safe. Other than that, Jimmy would be a free man in my custody.

Judy and a platoon of helpers arrived just as I was hanging up. Without acknowledging me, they descended on Jimmy and went to work. There was no kind, “How-do-you-do, Jimmy?” or “We’re-just-going-to-make-you-more-comfortable, Jimmy”, or any other pleasantries. Even if they knew what he had been through, I wondered if they would give a moment’s thought to why it is considered acceptable by the courts for a black man to be transported sixteen hours without food or water or toilet facilities, in a metal cage where temperatures can exceed 50 degrees. At least they were some of the questions on my mind. As I stood at a distance and watched, I kept thinking, Jimmy, I wish you mattered as much as they’re pretending.

After they had processed him, Judy placed a gown across the foot of the bed and said, “He can put that on after he showers. He’s slotted for first thing in the morning…”

She seemed to end on a high note that made me think she was going to say something else, but she didn’t, other than ask, “Is there anything I can get you?”

I told her I was fine.

I went to Jimmy and said, “Jimmy, I think it would be a good idea if we get you in the shower. You’ll feel a lot better.” The timing was almost imperceptible, but it seemed that Jimmy made a move to get up from the bed a nano-second before I reached to help him. He understood me. From that moment I resolved to have him talking. While I afforded him the privacy of showering without me being present, I kept the door open. Under the shower curtain, however, I noticed bloody water running down the drain from time to time. With fresh dismay I realised Jimmy’s clothes had been concealing other injuries. Once he was back in bed, I contacted Judy again and shared my suspicions, asking if there might be a male nurse available to examine Jimmy’s body and photograph any wounds. The Registrar, who had previously attended to Jimmy, turned up to do the job. Again, he was official and discouraging of conversation. Still, he made a report of his findings, noting a small laceration to Jimmy’s head and another to his right leg. Neither required stitches. I thanked him and he left.

I then said to Jimmy, “I promised you a tea hours ago. How about it? I’ll make it black and bring some milk and sugar over, huh?”

I made one for myself too.

The kitchen delivered a hot lunch which he devoured. I asked, if there were spare meals, could they bring one in for him.

It was now 13:15 so I sat down to write my report and read the remainder of Jimmy’s file.

Jimmy was a full-blooded Luritja elder raised on a Christian Mission, who had, by all accounts, lived with his tribe and led an uneventful life. He did not consume alcohol. He had no criminal record, including misdemeanors of any sort. That is, until the full force of the Howard government’s “Indigenous Reforms” were felt in 1997. As a result, Jimmy, and many like him, were prevented from providing basic necessities for their kinsmen. Despite many attempts at reasoning with welfare officials, Jimmy, and others, could not adapt to the changes required and maintain an acceptable standard of living. The reforms had tarred all Aborigines with the same brush and removed the financial autonomy of even the most secure and responsible members of the community. Finally, men like Jimmy were forced to take matters into their own hands in order to feed their people. This resulted in illegalities for which many were incarcerated; Jimmy included. He had been removed from his community – the only life he had ever known – and placed in a police cell in Alice Springs. While there, he underwent a routine medical checkup, which revealed a nonspecific growth in his groin. Arrangements were made to transport him to Adelaide for a diagnosis.

“Can I have a smoke, Boss?” whispered a voice.

Shocked, I exclaimed, “Jimmy! You talked to me, mate! I knew you could understand me!”

He smiled just enough to reveal that roughly half his teeth, top and bottom, were missing.

“A smoke? Sure, we can get you a smoke. We have to go outside, though. And I have to get you to sit in a wheelchair.”

“I can walk, Boss.”

“I know, but those are the rules, Jimmy. I have to wheel you, and I have to put that chain on too,” I said as I pointed to the metre-long device I had earlier discarded on the floor.  He didn’t make a move. He didn’t say anything. I asked, “Do you still want to go?” He nodded, so I wheeled the chair around and he got in. I secured one end of the chain to the wheelchair and the other I simply draped over Jimmy’s arm. I couldn’t shackle him.

As we passed the ward desk I reached into the bottom drawer where “Prisoner Smokes” were kept and took two out of an almost empty box. I grabbed the lighter and told the nurse we were going out for a smoke. She must have been the new girl, as she looked unfamiliar and a little confused. We took the lift down to the ground, proceeded to the foyer entrance area and passed through the doors. It was warm out. The air tasted of salt. I handed a cigarette to Jimmy and lit it for him. He thanked me.

Most prisoners aren’t grateful, but Jimmy was different in most respects, because he didn’t fit the profile of a prisoner. He talked well, albeit in a voice thick with quaint shortcuts. “What dat d’reckshun, Boss?”

“North, Jimmy. Alice Springs straight ahead.”

“Never bin in town before Ella Spring, Boss,” and then quickly before I could reply, “Plenty sparr-ah here, Boss, hey?”

“Yep, lots of bird-life around here, Jimmy.”

“What dat bird, Boss?”

“That’s a Shrike.”

“Can’t say dat word, Boss. Not gunna try”, he said with a smile.

“How old are you, Jimmy?”

“Ah…dunno Boss.”, then he laughed, “One day closer.” He threw his head back and blew out smoke.

“Jimmy, do you know why you’re here? Here at this hospital?”

“Got a thing right here, Boss,” pointing to his groin.

“They gunna look at it and git medicine for it.” He nodded to himself.

And so it went for a full two hours. Jimmy was a veritable chatter-box. He admitted to having been scared to death during his trip from Alice Springs. He had no idea why he had been cuffed or beaten when he hadn’t said a word. I told him that people like his guards don’t need a reason. He said he had wanted to like them and that they probably had unhappy lives.

I asked him how he was feeling.

“Fine Boss. I juss think ‘bout my place. You know…juss close my eyes an’ I see my people”.

‘His people’ used to include a wife, but she died from diabetes several years before. They had one son, Robert, 17, who was offered an apprenticeship as a carpenter when he was 15. He had one year left. He still returned to the Mission fortnightly to visit his Dad and the rest of his people. I asked Jimmy if he liked footy and he became quite animated, explaining that Robert had been picked to play at AAMI Stadium in an Under 14s all-Koori team when he was only eleven. Jimmy had dreamed of someday seeing the stadium. None of the parents had been invited to attend. I asked him if he was fed during the trip from Alice. No, but joked that he had some reserve, patting his stomach and flashing half his teeth at me again. I found myself wishing I had his outlook on life. Who was the real prisoner here: him or me?

We went back inside and, as we did, I said, “Jimmy, I have a surprise for you”.

“What Boss?”

“Ah, you’ll just have to wait two minutes”. We took the lift and, wheeling him back to his room, I stopped in front of the window.

“If you look way over there,” I said, pointing towards the beach, “you can see a football field.”

“Yeah, Boss. I can see dat.”

“Well, Jimmy, that’s AAMI Stadium.” His mouth opened wide.

“You pullin’ me leg, Boss?”

“No, Jimmy. That’s it.” He just stared and smiled for a good five minutes.

“OK Jimmy, that’s enough for today. You might want to use the toilet while you’re up. We’ll get something else for you to eat if you want to and then you should probably rest. Someone else will be here later to sit with you through the night.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Jimmy ate, Wilson arrived, I briefed him, and left.

‘At 07:50 the following morning I turned up to find Wilson and Jimmy gone, along with his bed. On making enquires I found Jimmy had been taken to surgery. Surgery? I had thought he was here for a simple prognosis. Oh well, I suppose that makes sense. They probably have to cut him open in order to better understand what was wrong. Still, it didn’t sit well with me for some odd reason. At 09:15 Wilson appeared, looking tired, with an orderly pushing an unconscious Jimmy.

Wilson said, “I am beat! I’m off to bed. See you tonight. Everything’s in the Log.”

He was right. Everything was there. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except the surgery, that is. Jimmy slept. At 11:30 a face appeared that I hadn’t seen before. He looked medical. He picked up Jimmy’s charts, had a read and generally fussed about.

“Excuse me, but how do you fit into this picture?” I asked. He looked surprised.“Sorry, but I’m his guard and I have to keep a log of who comes and goes. You understand.”

“Sure. I’m Dr Grayson, the surgeon.”

“Oh, OK. Will he need to be under guard long? I mean, can he be checked out soon?” “He’ll need to be here awhile yet – a pretty major operation.”

“I thought he was just here for a prognosis.”

Still, fiddling and flicking papers, he said, “No, we had to take everything.” Everything…everything…? What did he mean by everything…?—— Is he saying what I think he’s saying?

“Everything?” I squeaked out in a voice that didn’t sound like mine.

“Yeah, it was too far gone.”

Too far gone? Isn’t it customary to get consent for stuff like that? How could you j…”

“There was little we could do,” he interrupted. “Besides, he doesn’t speak English.”

“He does, actually. He’s just terrified of all this,” as I opened my arms gesturing. “He’s never even been in a city.”

The mutilator didn’t say anything more. It suddenly occurred to me that we had just had a conversation about a highly intimate matter concerning Jimmy; one that was probably illegal.

Then I realised that the system didn’t really care two hoots about Jimmy’s private affairs or his legal rights. In his condition – his station in life – he had no rights. The words poor, black and prisoner came back to me. I felt physically ill. Here was a man who had lived a lawful, innocent life with people he loved and led, imprisoned for stealing flour, and was now castrated.

As I looked at him sleeping, I thought, O Jimmy, don’t wake up. How could a tribal elder hold his head high, feeling only half a man?

I sat there: speechless, numb, ashamed… Jimmy slept the remainder of the day. When Wilson arrived I told him the news and then left.

The following morning when I arrived, Wilson was sitting outside the room, a curtain drawn around Jimmy’s bed. “What’s happening?” I asked.

“He slept most of the night and now they’re in there changing the dressings.”

“Does he know what they’ve done to him?”

“I’m sure he does now. Listen, does he even speak Australian? I can’t get a word out of him.”
I ignored the question and let out a low whistle through my teeth and shook my head, still in a state of disbelief. I felt the colour drain from my face and my jowls tighten.

“Well, I’ll take it from here. Are you backin the morning, or did you swap with Keith? You had a game on, right?”

“No, I’m back. Couldn’t get anyone to do the shift. How long will he be here, ?” “Not sure. I asked the same question, yesterday. It might be awhile yet,” I said vacantly. “Catchya later”, he said, and then slumped away. He was an unfeeling, unintelligent soul, but I could tell that what had been done to Jimmy was unsettling even to him. Half an hour later the curtain was removed and the squad dispersed.

As I viewed him from the open door, Jimmy lay there looking like a corpse; his eyes closed and jaw fixed. It was the same look I’d seen after taking off his cuffs. I recognised it as a disguised pain. The mental and emotional pain was arguably more acute than the physical.

I went into the room and made a tea. When I turned around, Jimmy was gazing out the window towards AAMI Stadium. I walked over and said, “Hello, Jimmy,” and rested my hand on his shoulder.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t move.

I pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat, feeling like one of Job’s miserable friends. I feared that anything I said would be hollow. I let my tea grow cold. It seemed that participating in such a trivial pleasure as drinking tea at that moment would be disrespectful, a show of indifference.

I chose not to read, either. All my thoughts were on Jimmy. I simply waited, having learned long ago that sometimes silence says more and is more appropriate.

After a long, long hour Jimmy forlornly asked, “Why day do dat to me, Boss?”

Of all the questions he might have asked, that was the one I had been hoping he wouldn’t.

I replied, “Jimmy, I wish I had an answer for you, mate, but I don’t know.” My voice broke.

Silence descended on us again.

Half an hour later my suffering charge asked, “Can I have a smoke, Boss?”

“Wait up Jimmy. I’ll go and ask if it’s OK for you to get out of bed.”

I brought the attending nurse back with me who picked up Jimmy’s file and scanned it. “Sure, if he’s up to it. Not too long though,” came the nurse’s reply, with that official and detached tone.

We left immediately. I didn’t draw conversation and Jimmy didn’t offer any.

Finally, while finishing his second smoke, he said, “Thanks Boss.”

“What for, Jimmy?” I asked.

“For the smokes an’ for showing me AAMI Stadium. I wanna see me boy now. Go home soon, hey Boss?”
“Yeah Jimmy…soon. You’ll be home soon.” I wheeled him back to the room in silence. I was just about to suggest he use the toilet before going back to bed and fortunately thought better of it. That’s when I realised he was wearing a catheter and bag. These would be with him for the remainder of his life.

He made his way slowly to the window and drank in the view of his favourite footy ground while leaning on the sill and dreaming of his boy. Ten minutes later he climbed into bed and instantly put his head on the pillow.

He said, almost inaudibly, “Rilly tired Boss.”

“Have a kip, Jimmy. I think you’ve earned it.” All my words sounded useless and empty. He fell asleep within moments and moved only fractionally now and then throughout the day. A nurse came and hooked up a drip towards noon, but Jimmy didn’t stir.

Wilson came in at 19:45 and, after a brief handover, I left.

From that time until I returned in the morning my mind was occupied with Jimmy’s home up north, his people, his life, and of course, Jimmy himself, Jimmy and this appalling injustice.

I arrived at the ward to a very sombre reception. Wilson was feeling the full force of an emotion he had not known before; empathy. We discussed Jimmy. He left without saying good-bye.

Judy was particularly affected by the abject cruelty done to Jimmy and the new emasculated life awaiting him. She attended to him often, but hardly ever out of medical necessity.

After one such non-necessary trip to Jimmy’s bedside, Judy pulled a chair close to me and sat down, asking in whisper, “Rod, will anything be done about this…you know, what has happened to Jimmy? What about consent? Will there be an enquiry?”

I thought for a moment and said, “No. It’s unlikely there’ll be an enquiry.” I paused and added, “He will be taken back to the cells in Alice, do his three weeks and then sent back to the Mission.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No, no I’m not kidding,” I said, as I looked at the floor and shook my head.

I stood and walked into the hall, so Jimmy couldn’t hear me, in case he wasn’t sleeping.

As I did, Judy followed me and asked in a tone bordering on anger, “But Rod, how can they get away with something like this?”

I stopped without turning around, instead focusing on the Namatjira for a few moments, struck by the contrast of the peaceful ghost gums against the turmoil in my soul. I finally replied, “They’ll get away with it……because Jimmy is poor…. and Jimmy is black ….. and Jimmy is a prisoner.”

With nothing further to ask, Judy melted away into a quiet, solitary space down the ward to contemplate. I returned to Jimmy’s room and stood before the window, my watery eyes resting on the stadium in the distance. While Jimmy slept, I closed my eyes and dreamed of him sitting high up in the stands, watching his boy play his heart out. I was hoping those memories of better times would sustain him in the battles ahead.

Two days later, on my RDO, Jimmy was discharged, returned to the cells in Alice to contemplate the consequences of his actions and to learn the lessons of White Man’s justice.

Original article published by Meanjin.

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