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Lee Grant contacted me a few months ago to tell me of her project Belco Pride – an institutional portrait of the now empty Belconnen Remand Centre. ‘Belco’ was a small facility designed for 17 people, but according to Lee housing approximately 70 toward the end. Officially, the capacity is/was “under revision”.

The remand prisoners have since been relocated to the Alexander Maconochie Centre, which is talked up as Australia’s first prison built in accordance with the Geneva Convention (more on that in a later post).

After inmate rehousing, but before total closure, Grant took another opportunity to tour the facility, “thanks to an open day … billed, believe it or not, as a family event. And the families were out in force …”

Therefore, I was happy to see Lee post a few of her images from the ongoing series. I particularly liked these two pairings which are a wry juxtaposition.



Shortly thereafter my enjoyment turned to bafflement.

In Lee’s description of the open day she mentioned that the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” was clearly visible to all arriving visitors. This flat out shocked me. On Lee’s blog, I commented,

There is no correlation between Nazi concentration camps and modern Australian prisons. The inclusion of the phrase is confusing and offensive.

I had originally mistaken the facility, thinking the quote was on view at an opening for the new prison and not, as the case was, a closing of the old. Still, wonder remains at this crude and ill-advised allusion.

Lee responded;

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to chase up on the quotes with Corrective Services as yet and why they thought this was appropriate or even OK.

It may well be possible that the quote was already there from when detainees were being held (it was one of the first things you see on a whiteboard as you walk into the processing area of the facility). Though this is no excuse, it may partially explain why it wasn’t removed and as you stated, it is to some extent an indictment of the culture and thinking of some people who work in the prison system.

Interestingly I vaguely remember the local paper referring to the quote though I don’t recall the reporter making any association to Nazi concentration camps. I shall let you know if I find any more answers but I hope this helps a little bit.

[I will be sure to post any developments – be they images or elaborations on this peculiar alignment of geography, phrase and history.]

Like Lee, I do not want to judge individuals working in Corrective Services. Instead, I’ll simply say that systems in which workers operate along lines of strict procedure are likely to harbour casual and offensive attitudes. Workers are as disciplined as inmates in all prisons. So when individuals are subject to a system – relieved of actual decision making – there is no incentive to challenge objectionable attitudes.

For the best of the rest, check out Lee Grant’s Op Shop series, which proves that you can change the country and you can change the moniker (charity shop, UK; thrift store, USA) but the look, personnel, wares and atmosphere remain the same.



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