A friendship with a former governor of Bendigo Prison has helped a celebrated writer explore the morality of state-sanctioned execution.
Barry Dickens will appear at the Bendigo and Castlemaine Libraries this Thursday for a reading from new book Last Words: The Hanging of Ronald Ryan.
The book explores the morality of killing Ronald Ryan, the last man executed in Australia.
It focused on the experiences of Ryan’s three daughters, who endured unimaginable feelings as they watched their father die.
“The truth is (capital punishment) does not alter crime statistics. All it does is traumatise the children of those executed,” Mr Dickens said.
Ryan was executed for murdering prison officer George Hodson during an escape from Pentridge Prison.
The execution took place as then-premier Henry Bolte campaigned for reelection on a tough-on-crime ticket.
“In my interpretation Ronald Ryan didn’t shoot Hodson,” Mr Dickens said, noting it remained unclear whether Ryan or prison guards fired the fatal bullet.
The book drew on research that began in 1992, when Mr Dickens was commissioned to write his award-winning play Remember Ronald Ryan.
That research was based partly on conversations with Ian Grindlay, who served as governor at Pentridge at the time of Ryan’s death.
Grindlay was also in charge of Bendigo Prison when Ryan served time for earlier, unrelated offences.
“The governor was not friends with Ryan, but he did have a certain grudging affection for him,” Mr Dickens said.
Grindlay believed Ryan should not have been executed because he had demonstrated potential for rehabilitation in Bendigo.
“I was friendly with Ian and his wife. Many times I went over to their home for Sunday night dinners, and they told me stories.”
Mr Dickens said one of the most incredible was a visit from a Western Australian hangman, who stayed at the couple’s home in the lead-up to the execution.
“Can you imagine opening the door to a hangman? He came to their door with three nooses in his briefcase,” he said.
The execution took place at 8am on 3 February, 1967.
Mr Dickens said nothing justified jaded tough-on-crime stances on capital punishment.
“There is a horror in being hanged … (Ryan) was killed with his hands behind his back and his legs shackled. His neck was snapped in front of 12 journalists,” he said.
“Isn’t that murder? That’s my view, anyway.”
Mr Dickens will appear at the Castlemaine Library at 2pm this Thursday, then at the Bendigo Library at 5.30pm.