In the second in a multipart series on Sir Henry Bolte, Neil Beggs, one-time parole officer for Ronald Ryan, examines the effect of alcoholism on the man and his decision making processes.

“Alcoholism” (if possible, not a term to be used) has been well defined as “the disease that denies its own existence”. It can be hell, trying to wangle someone into treatment; and with a license to behave badly, a man won’t face the sort of trouble (with car, family, or workplace) which gives a window of opportunity. His denial stays strong, while to his behaviour it adds a nasty element.

I wrote how Sir Henry went pretty much solo to carry through the 1967 hanging: this, after the last fifty death sentences in Victoria had been commuted.

However, about the Ryan case there may have been a more awesome denial.

Well, here goes: did Sir Henry suppress or deny an awareness that the three deaths of the Ryan case were due to him?

I charged this in a letter in the Melbourne Herald of 18th January, 1967, headed “Parole men ‘could have helped Ryan’: 3 who quit rap system.”

This letter had been wrung from me by the splendid leader of one group opposing Ryan’s hanging – from inside Social Welfare Branch of the Chief Secretary’s Dept. This leader was Norm Wearne, research and statistics officer for the Branch: who could sit serenely for a counter-lunch amid us drunken, demoralised rabble – a non-swearing, teetotal social worker, liable to give Christianity a good name.

About a year before, Norm had come to me – I was secretary of our union section – to show a letter to the press.(Headed, I think: “Why I can no longer remain silent”): I said he shouldn’t do this; we’d have a working party, and send a petition. No doubt who’d be chairman.

Months later, 45 of us signed the petition, and it went through channels to Bolte (Well, maybe not quite to him): ” 27th April,1966. The Director-General of Social Welfare I refer to the petition concerning capital punishment presented by certain Professional Officers of the Branch for submission to the Honourable the Premier. The Secretary to the Premier’s Department has informed me that there is no objection to the petitioners being advised that their petition has been brought to the notice of the Premier. J. V. Dillon, Under Secretary.”

Mr Dillon headed the Chief Secretary’s Dept.

When Cabinet Ministers later that year were lobbied by churchmen etc., they said they’d not heard of our objections to the hanging.

Because I’d moved across Australia to the new WA Probation and Parole Service, Norm explained that I was about the only person outside the Victorian Public Service available to write to the Melbourne Herald (It was the Christmas-New Year holidays).

Norm’s wanted to publicize this petition: but if I wanted to add something as Ryan’s former parole officer that would be OK, too. The Melbourne Herald was primed to receive and publish it (as I wrote last article, Sir John Williams, chairman of the Board of Herald & Weekly Times, had warned Bolte that he was dead against him).

Full of misgivings, I didn’t rush to write this letter: W. A. also had some old-fashioned country ways, and a Liberal Government! But after a little prodding, I got together with Peter Redding (also come from Melbourne) and we spent many hours honing it.

Sir,

With other social workers, I have recently resigned from the Social Welfare Department in Victoria.

It is now a demoralised agency. Even senior social workers are now seeking other jobs, joining the exodus of those we now call ‘Rylah’s refugees’.

Many social workers still in the department would like to be heard on the Ryan case. They have first-hand knowledge of criminals and their family background. Some have worked with reprieved murderers released on parole.

In March, 1966, I was one of the 45 professional officers in the department who sent an appeal through proper channels to the Premier. We asked for an informed inquiry into the unresolved question (in Victoria at least) of capital punishment.

The Premier of Victoria did not acknowledge our appeal. Four years earlier he had treated another such appeal from us in the same way, when Robert Tait’s fate was at issue.

There are other links between the Tait and Ryan cases. Both were released with inadequate study of their problems. Their crimes revealed weaknesses in the system which was charged with helping them and with protecting the public.

In 1962, it was a matter of life and death, not for Tait, but for the Bolte Government, that Tait’s parole file and other papers should not be examined too closely. The fight to keep these papers from being tabled in the State House will be remembered.

I was assigned as Ryan’s parole officer when he was released on parole from Bendigo prison in 1963.

Many aspects of his case are confidential, but it is public knowledge that while serving these three years at Bendigo he studied for and gained his Intermediate and Leaving Certificates. He was seen by officials who knew him as a fine prospect for rehabilitation. As he put it, he was known to the police as a ‘homing pigeon’ who would always want to be near his family.

With help and the threat of prison if he failed, he could have settled down. This help was not available from the parole service for adult males in the Social Welfare Department.

As his parole officer, I was carrying a caseload of more than 200 adult male offenders. I was also required to spend time at university, which left a four-day week for dealing with this enormous number.

Effectively, this was five times the caseload recommended by United Nations studies. It was four times the number set in New Zealand by Ministerial direction. It was from twice to four times the numbers allowed for such work in other Australian states.

Effective help could go to perhaps one in 10 of the parolees. Ryan missed out in this ‘lottery’ of help. Because he had a self-sufficient and defensive manner – part of his problem – Ryan received no help at all.

I remember my feelings of shock and regret for Ryan and his family when he was heavily sentenced after breach of parole. In a better setting, so much more could have been done.

I would invite the Chief Secretary, Mr Rylah, as the remote but ultimately responsible Minister, to try to defend these enormous caseloads.

Sir Henry Bolte, as Treasurer, is implicated in the failure of agencies to protect the public, let alone help the offender. Within the Social Welfare Department, his slashing of welfare estimates is notorious.

He is also Minister responsible for the Public Service Board, which is charged with efficiency and standards in the public service. The board’s inspectors have never investigated social work aspects of the Social Welfare Department, or set standards of service.

Ryan is now doomed. The Victorian Social Welfare Department could not help him. Its understaffed prisons could not hold him. However, the Premier and Treasurer will not deny it the means to hang him.”

(ends).

Confound it! I made a mistake in this: however grudgingly, our petition had (sort of) been acknowledged. The Acting Chief Secretary seized on this mistake.

The term “Rylah’s refugees” was a mere concoction of mine. But we certainly had lost some good guys – not least because three successive pay-claims had been knocked back, while caseloads got worse and worse (of course) as people left without being replaced.

However, what I wrote about caseloads was much understated, because the reality was incredible. Neil Howard, great wag and raconteur, had told us all how he went to the Chief Parole Officer and asked (“on my bended knees”) for three more cases. This would have made his caseload 500:

” But the old bugger wouldn’t give them to me!”

I realise now that we would have done better to focus on what made the escape possible – shortage of prison officers. The public wouldn’t conceive that someone who made a breathtaking escape from Pentridge would ever “go straight” – claims that with more help (due to better caseloads) he might have settled down, wouldn’t wash. And note the Age editorial below.

But just to insert a human and vulnerable side of Ryan that could have been the basis of working together. During his parole (1963?) Ryan told a poignant story. Upon leaving Bendigo Prison he had gone (due to help from prison staff) to a book-keeping job in Melbourne. But his mother got hurt crossing a street, and the insurance firm sought to limit her compensation (Ryan told me) claiming that she was under the influence. He took repeated time off from work to combat this, and lost his job. This led him back to shop-breaking, he claimed.

It was known that in his late teens he’d worked hard to get a home for his mother so that his two sisters could come home from institutions. His father, Black Jack Ryan, had been your standard Irish alcoholic.

Back to Bolte. No, the monstrous parole caseloads couldn’t convict him, though they ought to have, since he was Treasurer and also responsible for the Public Service Board (see the letter to the editor, above). But if we’d only thought to focus on the weakness of security at Pentridge Prison, due to staff shortages…

In the year after Ryan and Walker’s escape, several parolees told me how they and their mates would put their heads together about one very short-staffed part of the prison and declare it “a go”.

Limits of space allow only a few words on the economic reason for Bolte et al. setting up the Parole Service. In today’s money, keeping someone in gaol cost maybe $ 50, 000 a year. Letting him out early (allegedly cared for!), with our enormous caseloads, saved more than 99 per cent of this.

But with a reasonable 94 per cent saving, there could have been a decent service!

My friend, Bernie Barrett (later to metamorphose into Dr Bernard Barrett, State Historian) sent me a cutting to WA from the Age of September 14th 1967. He indicated two items.

One,headed “Escape routes blocked” stated (in part):

” Special action was taken to strengthen Pentridge gaol after the escape of Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker in December, 1965.

This was revealed in the Social Welfare Department’s report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday….

Mr Whatmore said action had been taken to strengthen the security weaknesses revealed by the escape.

Mr Whatmore said that despite improvements at Pentridge, it had been necessary to use the prison chapel almost continuously for accommodation.” (ends)

The other item was headed: “Not enough staff – chief.” I just want to take some statistics.

“The report shows that the Social Welfare Department sought 128 extra staff members in 1964 but got 52. It got 24 new staff in 1965 after seeking 146, and in 1966 it asked for 138 more staff.

‘ At the time of writing it appears that the approvals for 1966 will be even less,’ Mr Whatmore says (The total staff of the Department of Social Welfare at June 30, 1966, numbered 1442).”

From someone else I received a cutting of the Age editorial next day (15.9.67) about the just released report – this latter was generally called the frankest ever.

“A cry for help. The admissions of the Director-General of Social Welfare are dismaying. Rarely is a senior public servant so frank about the faults of his own department, and we should at least be grateful to Mr Whatmore for that. The Social Welfare Department – which handles family and youth welfare, prisons, probation and parole – is no longer able to do its job properly. It is a financial invalid whose work is “superficial in the extreme”. A staff shortage hampers the efforts of every division, and many officers share their Director’s sense of frustration. The departmental malaise has caused a fall in the number of child wards placed in foster care, breakdowns in the placement of children into families, and resignations among probation officers.

Mr Whatmore’s report is for the year to June, 1966. Has the position worsened since then? The report provides much of the substance for long-held public suspicions. During the Ryan hanging controversy earlier this year, a former parole officer, who handled Ryan’s case, described Victoria’s prison parole system as a “demoralised agency”. He complained of enormous caseloads carried by parole officers and described the system as a “lottery of help”. Other former officers supported him. Whether the parole system could have helped Ronald Ryan is conjectural, but its critics were persuasive in their claims that the service was under-staffed, over-worked, and quite inadequate.

The Acting Chief Secretary (Mr Manson) said then that the department would like to see more officers appointed and some reduction in the caseload. But the Director-General did not share the pessimism of the former parole officers, Mr Manson said. If Mr Whatmore does not share that pessimism now, the difference seems only a matter of degree.”

(and a few more paragraphs).

Just note that this also made no mention of the situation at Pentridge Prison – the official replies in the Herald to my letter had also avoided it. Had I remained in Victoria, would I have seen in time that the prison failings were the real indictment? In my letter to the Herald, it got a mention in the final flourish: but I guess we parole officers didn’t know about the prison realities, nor the staff there to hear about them.

Anyway, from other experiences, I doubt that journalists and editors would have had the guts to accuse Premier Bolte about these deaths: but with him in his grave….

Call Sir Henry Bolte before the bar of history! I indict him for his neglect of people in pursuit of economic gain “for Victoria”. Would you find him guilty for the three deaths? An accomplice before the fact?

Peter Fray

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