Inside a prison cell with Anita Cobby’s killer
HOW can one really tell if someone is remorseful - that is seriously concerned about the impact of their criminal behaviour on others and ready to actually act or atone for their wrongdoing?
I broke the law. I was a criminal convicted of drug dealing and spent nearly eight years in jail. And yet, I have seen and experienced remorse in myself and remorse in others.
My time in jail exposed me to the "worst of the worst" - men whose crimes were so bad that they are never to be released.
For a while, I shared a cell for a with John Travers, the leader of the rapists and murderers of Anita Cobby. When I met him, I felt an immediate chill in my spine. He was not at all aggressive towards me - in fact, if anything, he was reasonably welcoming. But it was his eyes that chilled me; they simply had no reflection, as if I could see right to the back of his head. There was no soul, no humanity. I had never seen that before in anyone, and it really unnerved me.
John and I spoke about his crime. I asked him if he felt bad about what he had done and the impact it had on Anita's family. He simply responded by saying that it was a long time ago and that he had "done the time for the crime."
Having exhausted all of his appeal options in the Court system, his remaining hope was to convince law students at a university to make him a project; to realise that never to be released was too harsh a sentence and that they should advocate for a new hearing to give him a final date of release. In other words, his only action was about himself. He now felt that he was the victim and should be supported out of his predicament.
I contrast him with Matthew Elliott, one of Janine Balding's murderers. During my time in Cooma prison, I completed a course to become a "peer support inmate" and was often called upon by the jail to help inmates at risk of self-harm or severe depression. Matthew Elliott fell into that category and was often put into my cell to spend the night. I had my own cell, so he brought along his mattress and slept on the floor. That physical closeness can be confronting when you consider what he was in for. But he was very different from John.
Matthew has many "slash marks" (scars) from numerous attempts at self-harm. He would often talk about his wish to die. He hated himself for what he had done to Janine and said he felt he had no right to live. And I believed him. Unlike John's eyes, Matthew's eyes showed deep sorrow. I thought that he knew he had a wasted life and could do nothing to change it.
But Matthew did commit that hideous crime, and of course, deserves no sympathy for his actions.
I have always been a staunch opponent of the death penalty - not because it is too harsh, but because it is too generous a punishment. Death gives the offender an immediate departure from the consequences of their crime. Living in hell, in prison, is a much harsher penalty.
Remorse is more than being sorry; it is a verb - an action word. In my case, once the consequence of prison was my reality, I set about demonstrating that I was genuinely remorseful and worthy of a second chance. I completed all courses in jail relating to my offending behaviour and undertook a new degree, a Bachelor of Human Services (indigenous Studies).
When I was eligible for works release, I went to work at a community kitchen in the area I grew up in, knowing I would have to face the community I betrayed. I washed the floor and dishes and felt a sense of pride and humility in that work.
In the seven years since I left jail, I have headed up not-for-profits and am now the CEO and a Director of Thread Together, an organisation that works to rescue excess clothes manufactured from landfill and get them on the backs of people doing it tough. And I created and implemented courses to support vulnerable people, in whom the community had lost faith, with an internship to vocation and leadership programs. This is my action, and I believe that the community has looked me in the eyes and realised I am truly remorseful. I feel forgiven, and I am grateful.
Tune in to 'Remorse' on Insight at 8.30pm on Tuesday 18 June on SBS.