Contributor: Rhea L Nath
Australia’s prisoners are using an interactive website to share their stories and claim miscarriages of justice. iExpress, the website by community organisation Justice Action, has received sharp criticism by the governments of Western Australia and Victoria for providing prisoners with email addresses to interact with the public and protest their innocence. According to Justice Action, iExpress merely answers their “personal right, community right, for someone to answer an accusation”.
The website is a webpage and interactive email system that allows prisoners to create profiles, send and receive messages. It was officially launched in 2013. It has been called “appalling” by Western Australia Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan and has drawn flak from victim organisations.
iExpress messages are filtered by Justice Action which actively reviews content and follows censorship procedures typically used by prison authorities. Some of the prisoners featured on the site include Chris Bentley, a serial paedophile sentenced to 24 years for attacking two women and raping a 16-year-old girl; Chris Binse, an armed robber and “Australia’s most notorious criminal”; and Julian Knight, the mass murderer responsible for the Hoddle Street massacre.
“People can protest their conviction and it’s their entitlement to do so,” said Justice Action co-founder Brett Collins. “When people point at you, you have the right of reply.”
Unlike countries such as the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom, Australia does not currently have a Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to address appeals and the problem of wrongful convictions. Due to this, prisoners without resources or support look for platforms like iExpress to claim their innocence. And according to a three-year investigation by Civil Liberties Australia, 7 per cent of convicted murderers and rapists are actually innocent.
“When I hear 7 per cent of prisoners are innocent, that’s a lot of people who should have an entitlement to express their innocence through [the] website,” said Collins.
Other efforts towards social justice include innocence projects run by education institutions such as the University of Sydney’s Not Guilty: the Sydney Exoneration Project and the Innocence Project by Griffith University. They highlight several issues that lead to miscarriages of justice like false memories, false or coerced confessions, and eyewitness misidentification.
“The legal system is run by humans and in the end, we are fallible,” said Dr Celine van Golde, founder and director of Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project. Earlier this month, the forensics branch of the Northern Territory Police came under review when a man wrongfully arrested for rape spent over 100 days in prison waiting for DNA results.
In rare cases of overturned convictions, compensation remains a point of contention. Apart from the Australian Capital Territory, there is currently no common law or statutory right to compensation in any Australian state. In most cases, state governments are under no obligation to provide compensation, although some high-profile cases receive an ‘ex gratia’ payment (money given as concession). Lindy Chamberlain received $1.3 million in 1992 as compensation while Tim Anderson, acquitted of the Hilton Hotel Bombing in 1991, received $100,000.
Most recently, David Eastman, acquitted of the murder of Australian Federal Police assistant Colin Winchester in 2018, rejected an ex gratia payment from the Canberra government. Offered more than $3 million, he argued for $18 million. He was subsequently awarded more than $7 million for almost 20 years in jail.
When cases are not taken up by innocence projects or community organisations, prisoners without resources or support can find it difficult to argue their case. Often, one appeal to a state court is all that is available. Opportunities are even lower for indigenous Australians – they comprise nearly 26 per cent of Australia’s prison population although they represent only 2.5 per cent of Australia’s total population.
“There’s no question at all – there’s need for an investigative commission of some sort. We have many Aboriginal people who don’t have the resources to properly investigate their offences,” said Collins.
Rhea L Nath is a graduate student of Media Practice at the University of Sydney. Her work has previously featured in Scroll.in, Little Black Book Bangalore, Hakara Journal, and Cogito – The Literary Journal. She can be reached at by email or @rnath96 on Twitter.