The long-awaited book from Australia's most secret prisoner reveals an astonishing story of life behind bars at Canberra's prison. But at the same time, it reveals almost nothing about what landed "Witness J" in the sex offenders and paedophiles wing in the first place.
Witness J is a decorated former spy, a Duntroon graduate who spent 15 years posted in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, including as as an intelligence officer. In 2018, he was jailed in a trial that was so secret even its existence was not allowed to be disclosed for reasons of national security. The secrecy orders covering it are likewise secret.
Sketchy details have emerged, with Witness J saying it began in 2017 when he was working in south-east Asia and there was confusion over his authorisation for a weekend trip to Singapore. He was pulled back to Canberra to explain the breach. He says that as he spiralled into a mental health crisis he didn't get the help he needed, and was accused of mishandling classified information during his internal communications on the issue.
The federal Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, James Renwick, has expressed concern over what he described as a case unique in peacetime, in which Witness J was "charged, arraigned, pleaded guilty, sentenced, and has served his sentence" in secret, a circumstance Dr Renwick said should not be repeated.
Witness J's case only came to light when he sued the prison last year after police raided his cell, looking for a draft of the memoir that he is set to publish on June 1. The civil case, unlike his criminal case, was not suppressed.
Still, he cannot be named and his case cannot be disclosed. He cannot, he says, even share details with his partner because she's not an Australian citizen. In prison, he was given the pseudonym Alan Johns - not something he found difficult from a practical viewpoint because "I've certainly done it before in a professional capacity" - but he struggles now with the lifelong ban he has on disclosing his identity, which he says is dehumanising. His undisclosed criminal record means he can't get a job, he still owes $41,000 in legal costs, he is relying on the Returned and Services League to help pay his rent, and he cannot make money from the sale of his book because of proceeds of crime laws. This means he must self-publish, and any money he makes will go to a mental health charity.
For all its secrecy, Witness J's case has shone a light on life inside Canberra's Alexander Maconochie Centre - a prison which wasn't even allowed to know the details of his crime.
As a "special case", he was housed in the prison cottages with paedophiles and sex offenders, to be separated and protected from other prisoners. Ironically, it is "the best pod, in the best wing, in the best jail in which you could ever hope to be held".
Guards and prisoners alike are curious about his story.
"Many guards, knowing I was different and not understanding why, asked me openly what I was doing there and tried to elicit some small detail that would confirm one of the many hypotheses that were springing into being. Was it espionage? Was I a former police officer? Some horrible serial killer perhaps? No, no and no - not even close," he writes in his book, Here, There are Dragons.
Witness J recognised one guard as an old school friend. "He also knows not to ask any questions about my circumstances, and that he's been told by the general manager to leave me well alone and not tell any other guards that he knows me," he writes in the memoir.
"... He takes the opportunity to lean in and ask me what the story is, and I can only stare back at him innocently and put my hands in the air."
Only the prison librarian, the excellent Belinda, a "shining and patient angelic figure in a sea of grim detainees and corrections staff", comes closest to "figuring me out".
While he must remain anonymous, Witness J tells his story of prison life openly - using everyone's full names, from the prisoners (other than those who have offended against their own children or whose names are suppressed), to the guards and managers. It's a snapshot of the community behind bars in 2019, and a catalogue of both humdrum humanity and horror.
"Rape, child abuse, child exploitation," he writes. "We have a priest. A university professor. A senior United Nations officer. A scoutmaster. A cricket coach. Teachers, bus drivers, public servants ... Fathers and grandfathers."
Readers will recognise names such as Jeffrey Lee, who murdered his stepfather in 2015 and has been convicted of paedophilia and bestiality - all in all "a monster". They'll recall Robert Sirl, who traded ice for sex with a teenage girl in the foster system and raped another woman so violently she required emergency surgery.
Graham Dillon, in another part of the prison, is one of the city's most notorious murderers, after brutally killing his own eight-year-old son. "As he shuffles down the narrow library aisle towards me, he dips his head and politely excuses himself," Witness J writes. And there's Matt Massey, "a hulking giant with fierce fighting skills who brutalises people on a whim".
His closest friends in jail were Cameron Tully and Arthur Hoyle, both claiming their innocence but found guilty of horrendous crimes. Tully, who was jailed for sex offences against seven girls aged 7 to 13 on the family farm, is so charming and capable that he effectively runs the sex offender unit, organising the prisoners, mediating disputes and keeping life in order.
Hoyle, a former University of Canberra law professor, is "a good friend, a trusted confidant and a fierce intellect" with whom he shares a great passion for classical history, but who was convicted of raping foreign students.
"My confidence in a functioning legal system makes me think that he's had a fair hearing (two now) and that he is indeed a rapist. Arthur the rapist. My friend Arthur the rapist. We end our walk by shooting a few basketballs and then I rejoin the picnic table," Witness J writes, capturing the moral confusion he felt about his jailhouse friendships.
It's a snapshot of the community behind bars in 2019, and a catalogue of both humdrum humanity and horror.
John Aitchison, a serial paedophile priest, is another with whom he regularly chatted.
"We smile when we see each other. John Aitchison has already served two years in jail for sexually abusing young children in his Catholic parish, and a month ago as of writing this, he was sentenced to another five years for sexually penetrating a 13-year-old girl, again through his role as a priest." Aitchison screams himself awake in nightmares and sobs himself back to sleep.
He describes his book as "a rolling memoir of the trouble I had processing my feelings of living alongside 40-odd repulsive paedophiles and rapists in my prison wing. I am not a sexual offender, so I wrote in an attempt to reconcile these feelings of being personable with people who had committed the gravest acts of depravity against the most vulnerable in our society. I had to live with these people."
Witness J is at pains in the book and in an interview to stress that he is not an apologist for the men he lived with, and doesn't defend or forgive anything they have done. He has simply told his experience of having to live with them for 15 months - and "brutal and evil as these people are, they still are human beings", many of them victims of abuse themselves as children.
One of the things he has struggled most with is the comparison with the work he did in places such as Afghanistan with young children and vulnerable women.
"The book is less an answer than struggling with a question the whole way through," he says.
The best example of that is Tully. While in prison, all he knew of Tully's offending was his explanation of a misinterpreted piggyback when he was a young man. And while he knew everyone understated their own offending, he says he was stunned to read the report of Tully's offences after he left prison - "genuinely shocked more so than I was with anyone else".
In a setting where everyone has done something unspeakable, Witness J finds himself choosing friends inside as people do outside - on shared interests and whether or not he enjoys their company, rather than on their crimes. Some people he finds repellent, but less for their crimes than for their manner.
The most menacing prisoner in Witness J's book is not given his real name. This prisoner raped and tortured his own daughters and son. His son and wife are also in prison.
"In a wing of some truly repulsive people, [the prisoner] sits in a league all on his own, and it makes my skin crawl to know he sleeps only two rooms away from me," Witness J writes.
"He has deep, unfocused black eyes, almost like a shark's, and I feel that the predation and coldness of a shark sits behind them as well. He honestly chills me."
Witness J's struggles with the moral ambiguity of living with and even befriending people guilty of the worst of crimes are more than academic.
He has a personal connection with serial burglar and rapist Shaun Burke, who broke into homes in Canberra's north between 2002 and 2006, raping girls and women at knifepoint while their parents and housemates slept. One of the victims lived with Witness J's sister.
"She heard Burke enter the house, thought it was a roommate returning late, and went back to sleep," Witness J writes, recounting how he shook Burke's hand when he was having a bad time on his birthday. "Shook his hand. A serial rapist."
Witness J is keenly aware that he is seeing a human side of people whose actions have destroyed the lives of countless others.
"I've been told that humanising the inhuman is deplorable in its own right, and even my own sister, whose female friend was brutally assaulted and raped while she slept soundly under the same roof, chastised me about discussing my experiences of being detained with her friend's attacker: Shaun Burke. It traumatised her so much that she woke up one morning from a troubled sleep and told me never to discuss Burke again, and that she would never read this book."
He helped Taylor Schmidt learn a foreign language, believing the young prisoner had been jailed for killing someone during a botched robbery. The reality was much worse. The murder was committed with knives and a sword, he says (the court was told the weapons used were a machete and a baseball bat), and "Kenny informs me that, in fact, Taylor and his buddies went out and killed someone - a young Asian male - out of curiosity, and only robbed him as an afterthought".
There are many more. Nilander Sirowi, a taxi driver convicted of raping a passenger; Glen Vandavord, a primary school teacher who abused students; and Gary Leslie Marsh, a former St Edmunds College teacher of whom the judge at his trial said "it is difficult to imagine more depraved behaviour upon a young boy".
For Witness J, their crimes are heinous and he has never lost sight of the destruction they brought to the lives of their victims. But they are the people with whom he spent his days, cooking each night in their cottage where they had remarkable freedom, organising cakes on birthdays and celebrating with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
"As I squint through the smiles and jolly conversations, I notice it's hard to imperceptibly come to the conclusion that these men are all rapists and paedophiles; men who have preyed on others, including young children, for their own sexual gratification," he writes.
"But I know who they are. I want to be repulsed by each and every one of them, but I'm too overcome by the personalities and memories of recent interactions where I have seen the good side of them, and I no longer have an instinctive reaction like pulling away from an odorous smell."
Witness J says he wishes he had done things differently when he was pulled up over his weekend trip while posted overseas, so he still had a job. But he has learned through the experience.
"If nothing else, it has made me so acutely aware how dangerous some men are to the vulnerable people in our lives, and particularly children," he says. He's talking not about the black-eyed, stereotypical "grubby paedophiles", but the high-functioning charismatic men who pass for ordinary members of society.
"It just scares the shit out of me as a man, and scares the shit out of me for my family."
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