The golden words are always, “I don’t see how I could have acted any differently!”
It is 2010. A sedan drives up on a road in Sydney and a young 25-year-old woman of Indian origin steps out. She is dressed in stylish clothing, her hair is perfectly ironed, a French designer bag slung over her shoulder. No, it’s not Pitt Street Mall, Sydney’s trendy shopping district that she is walking into, but a prison. Just to clarify, this upstanding citizen is far from a convict; she is, as I affectionately refer to her, India’s solution to the Australian correctional facility.
I remember the day Bhavna Bansal, my best friend from high school in New Delhi who had returned to her childhood home of Sydney for university, told me that her fist job placement out of college was with the Australian correctional system. I immediately had images of her surrounded by hardcore convicts in extreme conditions, and was horrified. Bhavna laughed and told me that my reaction was not far off from that of her parents and sister, and attempted to convince me it wasn’t so scary. “Education and exposure fundamentally reduces fear and discrimination,” she told me.
So, how does a third culture kid, whose father worked for a large international corporation, who grew up between Australia, Switzerland, China and India attending prestigious international schools, end up in a professional setting so alternative from her regular life? Well, for starters, she works in mental health. Bhavna is a certified psychologist. She claims that this choice came about by following in the footsteps of her older sister Sumeet, who encouraged her to pursue the same profession. Today, she is a successful psychologist with a long list of prominent clients in her very own, comfortable private practice in Sydney. But 5 years ago, her first job out of university was working in the Australian Prison System.
She recalls, “I fell into it around exam time, during my fourth year of university. My professor told us about a report writing position that had opened up with Corrective Services in the New South Wales community offices. Later that day, as it gave me yet another thing to do so I could delay studying for exams, I called the number. Shortly after I was called in for an interview I got the job.”
Why does a serial killer kill? Image source: heavenofhorror.com
She began working with mixed gender community offenders, then solely in the women’s prison. Following this, she worked in men’s special protection. Just so you know, special protection is where inmates who are at risk are held – either for being high-profile, a social minority, or police informants. Inmates classified in special protection are also people who have committed very serious offences, like sex offences etc.
“I remember my first day on the job...correctional officers and some of the other staff were very unwelcoming and seemed to be doing everything in their power to make my entry difficult.” She says it took her a while to get used to her unconventional surroundings, but with a little perseverance was able to push through. “I cried on my way to and from work on most days for the first three months. I lacked a thick skin and simple things were made hard for me. I was regularly locked in or locked out of my office, denied access to meetings and inmates, and often kept in the dark and ostracised. I learnt quickly that I had become a part of an informal, unspoken initiation process which I could either endure or run from. I chose the former.”
I asked her, intriguingly, what her sessions with actual incarcerated criminals were like? She shared a story about a female inmate who had “murdered her husband, chopped his body up into several pieces and dispersed of the all them around the state.” At first, I was appalled and totally freaked out. I asked Bhavna – what kind of workings would have been going on in the mind of such a person? She explained the back story. This woman was a normal suburban mother who was severely physically abused by her husband for many years. One day she had enough and retaliated, and in the process accidently killed him. She then panicked, and hid the body in the bedroom. After several days, still completely overwhelmed, she started to chop off pieces and take road trips all around the state to get rid of the body.
Into the mind of a criminal. Image source: IMDB.com
Another story involved a man who was charged for the death of his 7 year old stepson. Again, my reaction was what kind of monster could possibly kill a child? It turned out that this man was a habitual methamphetamine user. He was in charge of giving the child a bath. As he was using that day, due to his neglect the child ended up drowning. Amrita further clarified, “Statistically, approximately one percentage of the people are psycho/sociopathic. Therefore, typically one in a hundred inmates is serving a sentence as a result of a lack of empathy or persevered antisocial behaviours. The majority of inmates are serving time as a result of their circumstances. They are a product of their environment and are victims of their own crimes.”
She tells me that there is only one experience with a client she was truly fearful of that still haunts her today. “This man was an older gentleman, who identified as gay, but was a repeat sex offender and committed heinous crimes towards women. There was no apparent explanation to his crimes or extreme behaviour, and he would often act completely inappropriately during our sessions, speaking of his arousal and pull out self-made sex toys to show me, and speak in detail about his extreme masturbation habits and fetishes. He was just so intense, complex and vulgar, with a certain coldness about him. I would comfortably classify him as a clinical sociopath. Unlike most of the other cases, he lacked any moral responsibility and social conscience. This made me most uncomfortable. Diagnosed sociopaths generally don’t respond to rehabilitation smoothly.”
Today, many years later, Bhavna looks back on her time in correctional care with mixed emotions. “I think coming from a completely different walk of life was my biggest contribution to the inmates. As I was not familiar with the ‘rough’ stereotypes unlike the other staff members, I approached them with no preconceived notions. I learned that human beings are fundamentally the same with similar needs. The divide is not actually created by what crime one has committed and how much time one is serving, but rather by segregation in society between social classes, gender, sexuality and cultural preferences.”
My friend’s words left me in deep thought. I have read that the most notorious criminals often justify their wrongdoings with deceptive and logical reasoning. If they consider themselves blameless, what does that say about how the rest of us consider ourselves? I realise that judgement is counter-productive. Apparently 99 out of 100 times, man considers himself innocent. The golden words always are, “I don’t see how I could have acted any differently!”
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Radha Jetley
Cover photo credit: Netflix.com