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Life Prisoners' Inquiry: The Hearing Report

Life Prisoners' Inquiry: The Hearing Report

The NSW Parliament Legislative Council’s Inquiry into the Security Classification and Management of Inmates Sentenced to Life Imprisonment took place on the 23rd of November, and ran all day. The Standing Committee on Law and Justice consisted of representatives from the major political parties, and heard submissions from government representatives, major victims’ support groups, and Justice Action. All key players were present including the Commissioner Peter Severin, The Hon Reginald Blanch AM QC who was speaking as the Chair of the Serious Offenders Review Council (SORC), and Dr John Paget, the Former Inspector of Custodial Services. Channel 9 and other observers were also present to record the proceedings. Please see below for links to the transcript and media reports on the inquiry so far:

Transcript: Inquiry into the Security Classification and Management of Inmates Sentenced to Life in Imprisonment 
Channel 9: Criminals Share What Life is Like on the Inside 
Huffington Post: Ex-convicts and Experts Ask Inquiry for Prison Overhaul 
Justice Action and Enough is Enough Online Counselling Proposal
Email stream of negotiations with Corrective Services showing no progress
Life Prisoners' Inquiry Index Page

Justice Action, a community-based watchdog for the criminal justice system, represented the life prisoners at the inquiry. Justice Action aligned with victim groups’ arguments for more information from the criminal justice system and fairer treatment for all involved. The Justice Action Team commenced proceedings by introducing three ex-prisoner witnesses:

  • Mr Robert Veen (biography), an Aboriginal man who was a member of the Stolen Generation and subjected to prostitution as a 20-year-old, served two consecutive life sentences; 
  • Mr Garry Page (biography), an ageing man with two visible indents in his head from voluntarily submitting to an amygdalotomy (brain surgery) in the aim to curb his aggression, served a life sentence; and 
  • Mr John Killick (biography), a man who has spent the majority of his life since the 1960’s in prison across four different Australian states, served his time with some of the most notorious lifers.

Justice Action led the inquiry by saying sorry to the victims who were affected by convicts' crimes, and thanked the victims for “showing a lack of vindictiveness” in their presentation before the Committee. The convicts spoke about their experiences. They also reprimanded the media for their role in heightening the political pressure to reclassify lifers back to maximum security after being declassified, as occurred in the case of Andrew Garforth. This was the case that ultimately brought about the inquiry, after the Minister for Corrective Services NSW, David Elliott, unlawfully decided to reverse Mr Garforth’s declassification, and reclassify twelve lifers to maximum security.

Justice Action articulated two key points that were backed up by strong evidence: that victims do not support the Minister’s decision, contrary to his belief and that the decision was incorrect and unlawful in circumventing the Commissioner’s decision based on SORC’s recommendations. Justice Action also proposed a number of recommendations, including that victims should not be notified of changes to the security classification of a prisoner unless it could affect their safety, and that ministerial intervention in administrative matters relating to individuals should not be permitted. The Commissioner should act upon the advice of expert Committees and Boards appointed for that purpose and should provide detailed reasons if the Commissioner decides to act against their recommendation. Every prisoner should be encouraged to improve their behaviour and develop personally, with the prospect of hope and reconciliation with the community. Both the victim and the offender should have the right to privacy protected in legislation.

Together, Justice Action and the victim support groups argued for greater transparency from Corrective Services NSW, greater victim and prisoner privacy, and the maintenance of a philosophy of hope for prisoners through accessible rehabilitation services and the possibility of declassification. Collaboration already exists between offender and victim support groups. In addition, Justice Action and Enough is Enough, a prominent victims’ rights and anti-violence group, have come together to propose online counselling services in prison cells for inmates.  With Union support, Justice Action and allied victims' groups have requested three months of access to the prisons to set up the system. The Justice Action team also spoke about justice reinvestment as more cost-effective than prison, and an overall better allocation of resources.

Mr William Hutchins, the Solicitor in charge of Legal Aid NSW, spoke about the lack of detailed reasons provided by the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, Mr Peter Severin, when rejecting the declassification of prisoners. His rejection of the declassification of prisoners came about even after the Serious Offenders Review Council had recommended they be declassified. The Members of Parliament showed significant surprise at this, with one even saying that it was “bloody odd”. The Hon John Dowd AO QC, President of the Community Justice Coalition, who spoke after Mr Hutchins, also argued strongly in favour of keeping the current lifer classification system in place without arbitrary intervention by the Minister.

Commissioner Peter Severin was confronted with the fact that his actions, in deciding to upgrade the classifications of previously declassified lifers based on ministerial pressure, were unlawful. He ultimately stated that he is waiting for the Inquiry’s report in March before deciding to return prisoners to their previous classifications, including two prisoners who were reduced to a C1 classification before the decision placed them back into the highest prisoner category.

Overall, it was a positive day for the advocates of prisoner rights and victim support groups. After the hearing, Justice Action attempted to communicate with Commissioner Severin privately, asking him for support for the proposal of online counselling services, however he would not talk with us directly. Following this, it was discovered that Corrective Services does not have sufficient funding to set up the online counselling network and is unwilling to discuss the matter further.

Robert Veen Biography

60 year old Aboriginal man, Robert Charles Vincent Veen has served more than 42 years in prison after having received life sentences on two occasions. He was convicted for two separate counts of manslaughter, between 1975 to 1983 and again, between 1983 to 2015.

Life Prisoners' Inquiry Index Page 

Robert Veen’s case highlights what the lack of rehabilitative support in prison can cause. For his second life sentence he was held for twelve years past his release date finally being released this year after 34 years. He got the benefit of the Violent Offender Treatment Program but had been given conditional release as day leave and weekend leave for the previous several years. He learnt new skills to deal with his anger and frustrations.

Born in 1955, Bobby was a member of the stolen generation with a deprived childhood. A white family in Albury adopted him when he was two but was ultimately removed from their custody when he became too difficult to manage.  He attended primary school in Albury and then attended Wodonga Technical College until he was fifteen, reaching second year standard. The principal gave evidence that he had a good outgoing personality and was outstanding at the sports of swimming, football and cross-country running. However, according to court evidence, a male teacher at his school introduced him to homosexual activity and the trial judge also recognised indications that Veen’s once strong personality had gradually deteriorated as he began to feel the impact of the difficulties of a black person in a white society.

In the course of his dysfunctional upbringing, he became a homosexual prostitute. In 1975, after drinking and arguing with a client, Trevor Michael Ward who refused to pay, the alternation ended with Ward being stabbed to death by the then 20 years old Veen in the victim’s flat.

The jury found him guilty of manslaughter instead of murder based on the defence of diminished responsibility as Veen had a brain injury and had uncontrollable impulses, especially when drunk. Justice Rath, the trial judge, sentenced Veen to life imprisonment on the basis that if released whilst suffering from what he accepted to be brain damage, Veen was 'likely sooner or later to kill or seriously injure one or more other human beings'.

The judge admitted that life imprisonment was otherwise inappropriate but was imposed to protect the community from Veen’s uncontrollable urges when affected by alcohol. This decision was overturned by the High Court in 1979 and Veen was given 12 years.  

During his first sentence, Bobby did not receive any support in jail. He was denied access to rehabilitation and education programs that could allow him to reform and reintegrate back into society upon his release. This was especially problematic concerning his alcoholic addiction that had a destructive influences on his behaviours and cognitive decision-making.  As he was a good worker in the prison who was “very quiet, never a problem”, he was released on parole in the January of 1983.

Unfortunately his detachment from society and inability to reintegrate resulted in him turning back to alcohol and prostitution, leading to his assault on Paul Edmund Hoson in October 1983, nine months after his release.

Once again, the jury found him guilty of manslaughter instead of murder based on the defence of diminished responsibility due to his alcohol-induced brain damages. Justice Hunt sentenced Veen to life imprisonment and his appeal to both the Court of Criminal Appeal and the High Court in 1988 failed, partially due to the case’s the striking similarity between his previous assault on Ward in 1975, confirming the sentence of life imprisonment.

His reoffending shows the inadequacy of the criminal justice system in successfully rehabilitating and reintegrating of past offenders back into the wider community.    

In 2006 he had a year long program that allowed him out to a AOD (alcohol and other drugs) program once a month from Long Bay prison. From 2007 to 2015 he received day and weekend leave going out with supporters from his family and community. He did the VOTP (violent offenders treatment program) from Parklea Prison in 2010 and 2011, and saw a counsellor once a month in the community for four years. He still sees the same counsellor.

Bobby Veen finished his term in June 2015 after completing those rehabilitation programs and since his release has resettled successfully with the support of psychologists as well as friends mentoring him.

He currently has a voluntary carer supporting him. He has developed as an artist. He has cancer of the stomach diagnosed in January 2015 and has been treated by radiation and chemotherapy.

Garry Page Biography

Garry Page has served 13 years in prison, between 1976 and 1989, of his indeterminate life sentence after being convicted of  malicious wounding with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. Justice Maxwell deemed it necessary to deliver this sentence on Garry Page on account of his aggressive behaviour.

Life Prisoners' Inquiry Index Page 

While he was growing up, Garry lived with his abusive and alcoholic father. His father knocked him around a lot and forced him to fight. Garry began to retaliate and defended himself in response to the treatment he received from his father. He attacked his father, almost ending his life.

Garry, conscious of his behaviour and concerned about the impact he could have on the people around him, was proactive in seeking a solution. In 1972 Garry went to Callan Park to volunteer to have a bilateral amylgdalotomy, believing this serious surgical procedure could alleviate his aggressive behaviour. At Callan Park, Professor Kicoh diagnosed him as an aggressive psychopath and described his aggression as amounting to a ‘disability’ which warranted the operation. Despite his efforts, the operation did not provide the changes Garry hoped to achieve. The worst effect was the loss of memory, which Garry later found out, was not caused by the operation, but by alcohol consumption.

Garry found himself in a situation where he struggled to control his aggression and stabbed a man in a black out during a confrontation with a man at the Globe Hotel in Albury. He was charged with malicious wounding with intent to inflict grevious bodily harm and was sentenced to an indeterminate life sentence in 1976. Dr Reid, a consultant psychiatrist to the Prison Medical Service, provided evidence at sentencing. He reaffirmed that he was a grossly aggressive psychopath, however the amygdaltomy procedure reduced his aggression to a considerable extent. He also noted that Garry was beyond help, as psychiatric treatment was unlikely to be effective and it was likely that he would reoffend. For Justice Maxwell this made Garry’s indeterminate incarceration necessary for the protection of the public.  This sentence enables Executive authorities to determine if release is appropriate. The severity of the sentence was appealed, arguing that the case did not call for the maximum sentence, but this was unsuccessful.

Corrective Services failed to provide any support for the first nine years while Garry was incarcerated. He felt they were useless and did not assist in empowering him to change his behaviour. Support services were provided externally by Alcoholics Anonymous, in early 1977, where he received particular assistance from members of AA. At the third AA meeting, Jim from Seaforth discussed blackouts which led Garry to associate his experiences to alcoholism and diagnose the problem. Through recognising that alcohol fuelled his violent and aggressive behaviour, Garry was able to learn his triggers and control them so he is better able to self- manage his behaviour.

In 1985 his improvement was further evidenced by his reduced security classification to B, and then in 1986 to C2. He also participated in a bricklaying course and was approved for the Work Release Program in 1987.

In 1989 the Parole Board recommended his release on licence after having spent 13 years 4 months and 16 days in custody. Evidence given by Dr Reid in 1985, painted a picture of a changed man. In meeting with Garry at this time he was described as being cooperative, friendly and reasonable after realising that his behaviour has been connected with alcohol. In giving evidence to the Board Dr Reid explained that Garry’s transformation was remarkable and largely attributed to his proactive engagement with the AA and his commitment to sobriety.

In 2002 his application for the determination of his life sentence was before the Supreme Court. They found that the fears formed in 1976 of the danger Garry could cause have not materialised. The Court fixed his sentence for 20 years, with 15 years non-parole.

Garry continues to attend 3-4 AA meetings a week and has remained sober.  He lives a settled life and assists the community. Garry has been a boxing and martial arts coach at the PCYC at Woolloomooloo for a period of eight years and has lectured teenagers at Randwick TAFE who have come to the attention of police about the problems with breaking the law.

John Killick Biography

John Killick is a 73 year old man with a strong sense of perception and standing within the prisoner community having lived in it for over five decades. He was only recently released on parole in January 2015. As a reformed ex-prisoner his special story is that he’s observed the desperation of lifers, understanding the experiences of those whom have nothing to lose. Life prisoners whom are offered no hope and classed as ‘dangerous’ to other prisoners and to themselves.  He has special experiences to share with the standing committee.

Life Prisoners' Inquiry Index Page 

Having been in and out of the prison system since 1960, John Killick was seen as extremely dangerous, to be excluded for many decades from the general community and portrayed as an untrusted person within society. He may infamously be known as Australia’s first ‘decimal currency’ bank robber and remembered for his part in an audacious and desperate escape in a helicopter, at the risk of his own life and others. Today he stands as a man in balance with the community, surrounded by supportive family and friends around him, having completed a book of his experiences and about to publish a second. John represents a man previously isolated and distrusted; now having recovered, he exemplifies the philosophies of hope, and effective rehabilitation.

John grew up relatively trouble free, considering he had suffered abuse from his alcoholic father. His problems only started at the age of 17 when his mother committed suicide and this significant milestone led to a very disenfranchised youth to leave home at an early age (the very day his mother passed) only to fall into juvenile detention 7 months later after falling into a troublesome crowd.  Since 1960 John has since frequently been in and out of prisons, a result of his crimes which were triggered by his self-proclaimed ‘devil’ – gambling.

Despite his early prison stint, John was a repeat-offender, with multiple prison stints during his life. He describes prison as ‘the very opposite of a normal society’ which instead fosters a different code of ethics. He described his period in Goulburn as a place which ‘was not rehab but brutal punishment and retribution, fuelling hate and recidivism, requiring a strong will.’ He describes the prison system as being overcrowded and understaffed with not enough programs to help people improve their situation. John attributed his psychological problem with gambling as underlying his criminal actions and led to his reoffending. During his early stints in prison he had received minimal support in managing this.

During his time in prison very few prospects were offered to John, removing his chance of reintegration within the community. He was denied the opportunities to partake in the work crews or day releases, due to his high security classification. John relates his experiences of long-term prisoners being denied parole opportunities when eligible, because of a ‘lack of external leave’ (weekend leave, study leave or work leave). In fact, the prosecution cited this ‘lack of integration’ to quash his 2013 parole hearing. The experience led to a decline in his health and exacerbated his high blood pressure.

In 2007 and again in 2010 John was able to participate in two gambling courses that offered him gambling support and assisted him in managing his addiction and put him on the right road for successful rehabilitation. In 2010 he was also afforded the chance to undertake the ‘Violent Offenders Therapeutic Program’. In addition to these rehabilitative programs, they were also combined with educational support administered via correspondence with Strathfield TAFE, under the supervision of Carla Molina in writing courses (novel and short story).

This expounded on John’s previous studies in writing under Ian Mudie, with his involvement in writing and future publishing supported by both famous Victorian writer John Kerr and also renowned Professor, Ian Plimer. The ultimate result of these steps has been an effective rehabilitation of a man who has undergone a transition from a convicted armed robber to a valued member of society. John now enjoys visiting cafes and seeing movies with his family, as well as writing and publishing books.

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