Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ray Denning and lessons unlearnt in our justice system

Jack the Insider Blog | The Australian | 24 August 2011 

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell deserves a round of applause. One of his election commitments was to examine the failures of the Bail Act (2007). In June of this year, the O’Farrell Government announced a judicial review into the Bail Act.

Retired NSW Supreme Court judge Hal Sperling QC will oversee the review which will report in November.

A promise made has been kept and Premier O’Farrell and his government gets a big tick.

The Bail Act was a flawed piece of legislation, driven largely by an appalling state Labor Government too eager to promote itself as being “tough on crime”.

Changes to the Bail Act created some very nasty unintended consequences. The policy wonks call it getting the settings wrong. But in human terms the costs are immeasurable or at least we won’t be able to measure them for some years to come.

Rates of youth detention skyrocketed in NSW; up by a third. Of those remanded in custody, only one third had committed subsequent offences. The overwhelming majority had been incarcerated awaiting trial for breaches of bail conditions, most commonly failing to comply with curfews. Many will await trial in custody for a year or more. Hopefully, the review will put a stop to this madness.

In Victoria, the Baillieu Government has run a “tough on crime” agenda. Ask the premier a question on transport, health or education and his brow quickly furrows but mention crime or God forbid, youth crime and he’ll go on for hours.

Now the Baillieu Government is moving forward with its plan to introduce mandatory minimum two year sentences for offenders between the age of 16 and 17 convicted of crimes involving violence.

It smacks of a stunt because sentencing data from the Children’s Court in Victoria shows that young violent offenders are not getting off easily. Secondly, a report from the Sentencing Advisory Council of Victoria reveals empirical evidence that longer sentences don’t act as a specific deterrent to offenders regardless of age.

In researching and creating the subjects and their histories for the documentary series, Tough Nuts on Foxtel’s CI Channel, one overwhelmingly common theme was the criminogenic effects of incarceration. In other words, that prisons and youth detention centres themselves are a major determinant of recidivism.

Our subjects were the worst of the worst: career criminals, mass murderers, drug dealers, people at the very top of the criminal hierarchy. They are the most notorious figures in Australian criminal history: Chris “Rentakill” Flannery, Dennis “Mr Death” Allen, Len “Mr Big” McPherson and John “The Magician” Regan.

Almost invariably they were products of a juvenile detention system where they were subjected to protracted physical and sexual abuse. Grafton Boys’ Home was the alma mater of any serious crook you could name from the 1970s and 80s; Stan “The Man” Smith, George Freeman, “Neddy” Smith and Len McPherson himself.

The system was mirrored in Victoria. Chris Flannery a knockabout, light-fingered kid was consigned to years of abuse at the Morning Star Reformatory. Ten years later, Flannery would commit his first murder. He would go on to kill at least a dozen more times.

By the time they reached adulthood, these men were ready to rock and roll. They didn’t give a damn about anyone else. Their experiences in reformatories had taught them one thing: “If anyone’s going to be victimised here, it’s not going to be me.”

There is no greater example of this than the sad, violent life of Raymond John Denning.

At 14 years of age, Denning’s childhood ended when he witnessed his mother commit suicide by immolation. Her husband and Denning’s father, was returning from one of his frequent sojourns in prison. He had been violent towards the family before and Denning’s mother, her mind addled with alcoholism, believed it preferable to douse herself in kerosene in her bed and set herself alight than endure another beating.

Her only son, Ray, returned to the home to see his mother’s body engulfed in flames. He tried vainly to put the fire out but his mother died before his eyes.

As Denning would later put it: “She didn’t scream and I didn’t cry.”

From that point on, Denning’s cards were marked. He was shuffled around the homes of extended family members but he never felt welcome and wandered in to the streets and to a life of crime. He was made a ward of the state, in and out of youth detention in South Australia and NSW (yes, he was an old Grafton Boys’ Home boy, too).

At the age of 17, he was committing armed robberies, traumatising people by sticking a gun under their chins and demanding money. At 21, he was convicted of a string of armed robberies and sentenced to 13 years in jail. Just 18 months into his sentence, Denning and three other criminals sought to escape from Parramatta Gaol.

While attempting to escape, Denning took to a prison guard with a claw hammer, beating him half to death. The guard, Willy Faber, would die prematurely from the injuries sustained at the hands of Denning but not for several years. Denning was convicted of serious assault and sentenced to life in prison.

Denning was labelled “intractable” and put through the sling shot to the maximum security wings of NSW’s worst prisons, including Katingal and Maitland. He briefly escaped from Maitland. After his recapture he was sent to Grafton Gaol.

Grafton was a relic of Australia’s 19thCentury prisons. It was a place of institutionalised evil. Behind its grim walls, inmates underwent the reception biff, sometimes referred to as the “Jacaranda Festival”. Beatings were routine and indiscriminate. News of the bashing of Faber preceded him and Denning was hit harder than most.

Denning wrote his diaries in Grafton, detailing the constant physical abuse and humiliation. The diaries were circulated among prisoners’ action groups and would later be published as part of the push to have Grafton gaol shut down.

Denning would become the only man to escape from Grafton Gaol in its 100 year history. He remained on the run for 18 months and became a celebrated figure for prison reform activists. Cheekily, he lodged a log of claims in writing at police headquarters, leaving the imprint of his hand on the glass door to let the police know its authorship. He recorded radio interviews for 2JJ. Sixty Minutes did a segment on him.

Denning was recaptured in 1980 and put back in the prison system. He escaped from Goulburn Gaol in 1988. Within a week he was recaptured by the Victorian Armed Robbery Squad in the company of Australia’s most wanted man, Russell Cox. Cox had been on the run for 11 years, the only man to have escaped from the concrete coffin of Katingal.

Within several days of his capture, Denning became an informer. Information he gave Victorian Police led to arrests in one particularly violent armed robbery where a security guard was shot dead.

In time, Denning would become a “supergrass”. He gave Crown evidence in a number of big trials, including the trial of Tim Anderson for the Hilton bombing. Anderson was convicted of the crime, largely on Denning’s evidence but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

On one occasion while giving evidence, a former prison inmate in the courtroom hurled a bone on to the courtroom floor. “There’s your lunch, you f***in’ dog”, the man yelled at Denning.

Denning was placed in protective custody at Long Bay where he served a further five years, largely isolated, his only company that of the guards and police officers who called in on him.

Within six weeks of his release, Denning died of a heroin overdose. Many people who knew him, including the police officers who had befriended him, believed Denning was given a hot shot. A coronial inquest determined that Denning had died of an accidental overdose.

The real truth may never be known. Ultimately, Denning was dead at 42 having spent all but four years of his adult life behind bars. Many who knew him, including his legal team and police officers recall Denning with some affection; a wiry-framed, tattooed body enveloping a childlike mind; his psychological development frozen at the point of his mother’s death when he was just 14.

Australia has improved in its treatment of adult prisoners. Grafton was shutdown, largely due to the adverse publicity Denning had created.

How we treat our youth when they run off the rails has changed for the better, too. Gosford Boys’ Home was finally closed after more than six decades of putting young offenders on the criminal treadmill. Morning Star Reformatory is now an upmarket hotel.

Had Denning experienced the trauma now that he underwent in 1961, he’d be eligible for victims of crime compensation, there would be psychological intervention, counselling and accommodation provided.

Still the rate of progress remains stunted and every now and then, state governments driven by a zeal to push their credentials as being tough on crime, take a backward step as the consequences of the amendments to the Bail Act in NSW reveal.

If our society is in the business of creating monsters we have the blueprint. Sure, we can lock them up, keep them off the streets for a while. Then these monsters, twisted and scarred by their experiences behind bars and bristling with violent rage, will get out.

*Jack is writer and co-creator of the Tough Nuts series for Foxtel. The episode on the life and crimes of Ray Denning premieres on Foxtel’s CI Channel on Thursday at 7.30pm (AEST).

1 comment:

  1. Nothing has changed in the sense that a good proportion of those committing violent crime are products of the juvenile system. I have always been horrified at the lack of support for state wards, too, kids who have often been the victims of horrible abuse. Many of them go from refuge to refuge and end up in the criminal justice system.
    And the perception that once someone turns 18 they are automatically an adult is deeply flawed. I have seen many vulnerable young men in prison who should be dealt with in an entirely different way than older prisoners. We now know that their brains don't stop devleoping until 25 or so.