My Pen Pal, Ivan Milat

Joanna Psaros

29 April 2021

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

It’s the classic question lawyers are asked. Would you advocate for someone you thought was guilty?

Well, what if it were a person who’d already been found guilty, of one of the worst crimes imaginable? That was the question I seriously weighed up when I started my internship with Justice Action.

Like many law grads, I graduated university with vague hopes of working in with a non-profit, advocating for human rights. Something that would help people. I just didn’t have a clue what that something was, or where to even start. So upon finding an advertisement for an internship with a group called Justice Action, I applied without a second thought.

On my first day, I was introduced to a man named Steve: and had quite a story to tell. Steve was the only person to be sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime that didn’t involve murder. He was visiting the office to prepare for a submission he would be making at a NSW Government Inquiry the next day. Justice Action, it turned out, was an advocate for prisoners’ rights.

Justice Action was founded by a man names Brett Collins who is himself an ex-prisoner having served ten years for armed robbery. It was his experience inside that inspired him to co-found Justice Action. 

In the words of JA itself, “Justice Action represents people locked in Australian prisons and hospitals, defending human rights in the hardest places.” 

Some of the things the internship involved were educating the public by producing fact sheets, helping draft submissions for a government inquiry (the very same that my mate Steve would give evidence for), and transcribing letters to and from “lifers,” i.e. people who had received life sentences. You may have heard of one or two, such as Ivan Milat; Australia’s worst serial killer. And Katherine Mary Knight, who has the dubious honour of being the first Australian woman to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.     

Reactions were decidedly mixed when I told people what my work experience involved. The internship wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind when I applied- we weren’t saving the environment or advocating for the rights of refugees- but nor was it as disturbing as some peoples’ reactions suggested. 

At law school I’d thought of criminal justice solely in terms of prevention. I’d never seriously considered what happened after a person was found guilty. That was game over, as far as I was concerned. As with the majority of people, other than in television and films, prisoners were out of sight, out of mind. But maybe that’s because I’d never been in prison.

Police at Town Hall steps

During my time there, one of the major projects was campaigning for computers in prisoners’ cells. Including in maximum security. The idea wasn’t that prisoners would use them for playing games or going on Facebook (and obviously, there’d be no access to “questionable” material). It was primarily for education and communication; two pretty essential things for every human. So theoretically, an inmate could email and Skype his or her family, learn new things- and stay out of trouble. Perhaps most importantly, there would even be the capacity for online counselling. 

But just what is the point of providing these services to individuals who had been put away for very good reason? Individuals who had killed or violently assaulted innocent people? Surely a person capable of that level of violence is beyond help.

There are a couple of answers to this. 

Firstly, there’s the hope of rehabilitation. It’s true that a lot of criminals commit another offence after they leave jail. But this isn’t necessarily proof that rehabilitation can’t be successful; often it’s a lack of options- for education, for psychological help, for learning skills that could help people on the outside- that cause ex-prisoners to fall off the wagon. 

So does this mean that rehabilitation only applies to prisoners whose release is imminent? Nope!

Rehabilitation can also be psychological. With intensive counselling, many prisoners are able to feel genuine remorse for their crimes. Is there any logic in denying them this opportunity? 

Secondly, these are people. People who have committed horrific, damaging acts, but people nonetheless. Consider, who it actually benefits from having them locked away to rot, becoming crazier and crazier? 

It’s still hard for to come to terms with this. But I care about human rights. And that means every person, for better or for worse. 

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