"Prison is about survival": Marc Fennell discovers this Australian prison's surprising secret


For the first time, Junee Correctional Centre let cameras inside their prison for an exclusive look at the surprising program that is changing the lives of inmates.

From the outside, Junee Correctional Centre is like any other prison but inside it has a very special place you would never expect to find.

A few years ago they turned their gym into a massive art gallery of paintings by inmates.

One of those inmates is Mathew Merritt, a 32-year-old indigenous man who is serving a 10-year sentence for supplying commercial quantities of drugs and firearms.  

And for Mathew, it has changed not only how he views his life but how he views his future.

"When I'm painting it, I'm just stuck in it," he says.

"When I'm doing a big painting it feels so good, I can put a story to it and I feel good doing it.

"It's my way to keep away from doing other things."

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In and out of prison since he was child, Mathew grew up in the "rough" west side of Dubbo.

"It was just little things, you know, nothing big - break and enters, stealing cars.

"An assault on an officer, couple of assaults, you know what I mean... I was an angry little kid, most people were.

"It's sad, you know, because my mum always says she thought I would make it.

"She thought I'd be something. She was so shocked when she found out I was on drugs, in jail, and that.

"She just always thought I was going to be a good kid."

Offender Services Manager Trevor Coles is involved in the cultural programs they run inside Junee prison and they've even published a book of inmates writing. 

"Prison is about survival, that's what you do," he says.

"You do not live in prison, you survive in prison. You try to get through your sentence and get home.

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"What we're trying to do is support these guys into best utilising the time that they have here - but this is still a prison."

Mathew is a father of six and learned that his partner Crystal was pregnant with one of his children just as he began his 10-year sentence.

That, he says, was one of the toughest times.

"When I got caught this time I was locked in a cell, confined to a cell.

"You'd hear other boys come in then scattering out, you know? That was the moment.

""It broke me... I was like 'you're pregnant, I'm about to do 10 years in jail'... "

"Crystal brought the kids out to see me, then she told me she was pregnant on that visit.

"It broke me... I was like 'you're pregnant, I'm about to do 10-years in jail'. It broke me, I was shattered.

"It's not the first one she's had on her own, I've been in jail most of pregnancies. I've seen two of them be born.

"That's when I said I can't do this, I'm over it... the only way was to plead guilty and do me time and whatever comes in front of me, just take advantage of it.

"Hit the ground running."

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Right now in this country, you are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated if you are indigenous. One of the big aspects of the programs in Junee is education about culture and Aboriginal heritage - something Trevor says is vitally important.

"We're dealing with what could be described as a lost generation of young Aboriginal men and women who have lost their culture," he says.

"We're a social animal so we need to belong, we need to feel like we belong.

"It's significant for all of us and in particular when you feel your culture is drifting away from you, how do you draw that back?"

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