Imprisoned by foolish love
Crimwife: An Insider’s Account of Love Behind Bars
OW can you do this as a mother? What is your son going to think?’’ demanded her friend in disbelief. A drug and alcohol counsellor at a Sydney men’s prison, Tanya Levin had fallen for ‘‘ Jimmy’’, a convicted armed robber. Her position untenable, Levin resigned, thus making her transition from counsellor to ‘‘ crimwife’’, a torrid five-year affair that ended in failure and disillusion.
This book is the account of that affair, interspersed with the stories of the anonymous crimwives Levin met in that period. And there are many of them, for more than 90 per cent of Australia’s prisoners are men. Although ultra-masculinity and the ability to dominate are essential if one is to survive in jail, Levin’s message is that a devoted woman can be the inmate’s best chance of withstanding the system’s brutal psychological torments. Whether it is giving money to provide him with the pitiful basics, or driving hundreds of kilometres every weekend to see him, or agreeing to bring her man into her home so that he can get parole, the crimwife is at the beck and call of the system, a prisoner by proxy if you like.
Contrary to popular culture, Levin writes, most crimwives do not fall into the category of ‘‘ MWI’’, or met while incarcerated. As for those that do, the stereotype is of a woman who is weak, gullible, desperate or just plain stupid. The reality is more complex, she argues, citing research that inmates also seek out other personalities: the carer, risk-taker, problem-solver, rescuer and rule-breaker. Not surprisingly, there is a good chance the inmate suitor is a psychopath. Not the knife-wielding Anthony Perkins type but a cold manipulator who is nonetheless an adept charmer, yet devoid of conscience and empathy.
Crimwife is replete with tales of intelligent women of impeccable character who did anything for their man, regardless of the consequences. Remember the gun-toting Lucy Dudko, who in 1999 forced a helicopter pilot to rescue her lover John Killick from Sydney’s Silverwater jail? She was a librarian before she turned hijacker. Then there is the story of the female prison officer who fell in love with an inmate. On his release they went to a hotel, By Tanya Levin Black Inc, 237pp, $29.99 where he later slashed her face. Horrifying, but even more chilling is the pathetic account of the same woman, frail, bandaged, and back on prison grounds — but this time as visitor.
Levin’s experience with Jimmy is mundane by comparison. Reflecting on his influence causes her to think of ‘‘ an opportunistic infection, a virus searching for a home, invading, leeching, destroying, before moving on to search for a new host’’. After being released to live with her, he is caught in a stolen car. His parole breached, he is again jailed, something she promised would result in her abandoning him. Twelve months later, she waits at the prison gates for her parolee.
Her anger at his regression is tempered by her firm belief that, for some people, breaking the law is not a pastime, it is a way of life. Indeed, her citing the philosophy of the perpetual prisoner — the contempt for the social contract, the belief that one should act as one wills, regardless of consequences — serves as a poignant reminder that freedom is by no means an absolute concept.
Despite decrying the dehumanising culture of the prison system, Levin at times fails to recognise her own contradictions. The prison officer recruits she trained with, she writes, ‘‘ were not men and women with a passion for social justice and keeping the community safe, but a mixed bag of randoms from around the state who were tired of working at their local Shell station’’. She is disdainful of prison officers who marry each other: ‘‘ I am grateful that I am not the product of such a marriage.’’ Her experiences cause her to reflect that: ‘‘ In life and love, I am not suitable for the prison environment.’’ In the first context, I have no doubt she is correct. In the second, I am not convinced.