Dean Daley-Jones is the leading man
by: Sue Williams
From: The Australian
April 13, 2013 12:00AM
Inmates with Matthew Canny at Junee Correctional Centre. Picture: Sue Williams Source: Supplied
Dean Daley-Jones in Mad Bastards. Source: Supplied
Shakespearean actor John Bell: “We have a generation very much under-fathered.” Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian
TEN men dressed in regulation prison greens are sitting on plastic chairs arranged in a rough semi-circle, intently watching a TV screen.
It’s filled with a close-up of indigenous actor Dean Daley-Jones, all rippling muscles, tatts and the kind of fierce charisma that turned his first movie Mad Bastards into the sensation of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Today, he’s holding a completely different kind of audience in his thrall, but with an equally passionate performance. This time it’s with revelations of having been in jail a number of times himself, of old drug and alcohol habits and a hair-trigger temper that could, and frequently did, explode into violence.
The room tenses. He could be telling the story of pretty much any of these men, documenting the poor choices that led them to this place – the C-wing of the Junee Correctional Centre, outside Wagga Wagga, NSW. But Daley-Jones got smart. When faced with a final long stretch inside, he decided instead to apply for conditional bail, resolved to start accepting responsibility for his actions, tried to work out why he behaved as he did, and undertook counselling to set him on the right track. He sighs as he talks of the miseries of his old life, his childhood in a woman’s refuge as his mum hid from his father, and his own record of offending. His voice breaks and he wipes away tears as he tells of his struggles to forgive himself but never forget what he’d done, his relationship with his own son and his determination now to be a good father and role model.
As the DVD finishes, the jail’s health promotion officer Matthew Canny rises to his feet. “So, lads, what do we think?” he asks, picking up a marker pen and moving over to a whiteboard. There’s a moment’s silence among these men, who are in jail for a wide variety of offences; some are on the last leg of a long stretch inside. Then suddenly everyone wants to speak. “He was out of control of his life,” says one burly man, waving his hand in the air like a kid. “Then he got back control.” “It was about determination, and courage,” says another, thoughtfully. A third, only in his early 20s, nods. “He committed to something,” he offers. And a fourth, who had been slouching with an air of studied indifference, comes magically to life. “He wanted to change, and it’s about self-help,” he suggests tentatively.
Canny beams. This is the trial run of an ambitious six-week program that he hopes will help inmates to face up to the realities of their own lives and realise that they, too, have the power to break destructive cycles. And with an astonishing 60 per cent of prisoners sentenced in the past 12 months having been in prison before, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that could have a positive impact on the judicial system as a whole.
“Even getting these guys to talk about their lives is a big thing,” says Canny, when the inmates take a break. “It’s the first step in changing their attitudes and helping them gain some kind of insight that might lead them to start accepting responsibility. When they can identify with someone talking about troubles they’ve faced, and can see how they’ve overcome those issues, it has the power to make them start looking, often for the first time, at their own lives.”
Of course, they’re the ultimate captive audience but they certainly appear keen, with 100 per cent attendance every day so far – and Canny’s Healthy Inside program is entirely voluntary, with neither incentives for coming along nor punishments for failing to turn up. Along with the film element, it also incorporates low-impact exercise, nutrition and health education, art sessions, advice on budgeting and legal matters and information about support services available in the outside world.
At its heart, however, is the virtual peer-mentoring element, What Makes A Man A Man – a series of DVDs of high-profile men talking about their own past problems and setbacks, and how they overcame them to become better men along the way. It’s hoped they can make a real difference to a younger generation who have often grown up with few positive male role models in their lives.
What Makes A Man A Man was devised by a woman, psychologist Agi O’Hara, who lectured in psychology at the University of Sydney for 23 years and runs a private practice in Sydney’s Leichhardt. With so much of her professional life spent counselling the female victims of violence, she wondered how much work was being done with male perpetrators to encourage them to change their behaviour.
“Among men who’ve done bad things, there are some who’ll never be rehabilitated, but I found a number of them were just lost,” says O’Hara. “They don’t know how to be good men; they’re bad husbands and bad fathers, but they don’t know anything else. They may have had bad fathers themselves, been victims of physical violence growing up, and become socialised into thinking physical violence and abusive relationships are the norm. So many young men just don’t have great men in their lives any more to provide an example and give them advice and steer them in the right direction.”
Originally, O’Hara had the idea of asking well-known men to talk about their tragedies, triumphs and struggles and incorporating it into a book. Then she met Andrew Urban, a film critic, founder and editor of online movie magazine Urban Cinefile and presenter of SBS’s Front Up, who suggested she make a series of DVDs instead. “I felt that our target audience were less likely to pick up a book, and my experience with Front Up has been that the impact of people speaking directly to a camera, and an audience seeing how they speak as well as hearing what they say, is very, very powerful,” says Urban. “I thought it would have a much greater impact with such a sensitive project.”
O’Hara then wrote to well-known men from all over Australia asking them to take part. While some turned her down, others were captivated by the idea immediately. Former High Court judge Michael Kirby and barrister and human rights campaigner Julian Burnside signed on within minutes of receiving her email. Others included Aboriginal actor and men’s health advocate Daley-Jones, rock singer and aspiring politician Angry Anderson, restorative justice pioneer Terry O’Connell, the founder of Youth Off The Streets Father Chris Riley, actor-director Lex Marinos, paralympian Curtis Palmer and Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some excellent male role models in my life, and they’ve been a very positive influence on me, they showed me the way, and I’m grateful,” says Bell. “But now we have a generation very much under-fathered – violence has been a part of their lives and they see it as acceptable. So if I can help others by talking about my experience, and what I’ve been through, and about the choices you make, then it’s something I’m obliged to do. We have a duty to help people younger than ourselves.”
Angry Anderson, whose troubled youth was characterised by violence in the family home, was also keen to take part. Having conquered his demons to become a devoted father of four, he felt he had something to offer, too. “A lot of men have made very positive contributions to my life and if you talk about your life then it may encourage others to talk about theirs, and start getting insights into their own condition,” he says. “Once you accept the truth and begin to live your life by it, then that’s the greatest gift you can ever receive.”
With so many men responding enthusiastically to what they saw as a landmark project, O’Hara started canvassing the options. She decided she’d like to get the DVDs out to young men everywhere – schools, colleges, men’s groups, prisons. With all her savings she set up a charity to oversee the project and started, with Urban and cameraman Greg Kay, filming the first of the life lessons DVDs.
When Matthew Canny at Junee heard about the project through a forensic psychiatrist doing some work at the prison, he contacted O’Hara. A former nurse at the prison clinic, he wanted to take a far more proactive role in helping the inmates, and asked to use the DVDs to build a new program as part of the jail’s attempts to reduce re-offending.
He had the backing of the prison’s offender services manager, Trevor Coles. Ten years earlier Coles had seen a prisoner freed and then return shortly afterwards after being so completely overwhelmed with bills, and having no idea how to budget, that he promptly robbed a bank to pay them. “I felt there must be a better way,” says Coles. “Now, with our programs, they are so much better prepared when they leave.” The GEO Group Inc Australia, the private company that runs Junee, as well as other jails in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, and health services in all 12 public prisons in Victoria, then pledged $30,000 to further develop the series.
After a career spanning 34 years in corrective services in Victoria and NSW, Junee Correctional Centre general manager Andy Walker immediately saw the potential of the project. “A lot of our work is about recidivism and encouraging inmates that there’s a better way of life and that we don’t want to see them here again,” he says. “I think there’s been a shift in attitude in society too now. They’ve moved past the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ mentality. People realise that inmates will be released one day, and it’s in all our interests that they’re the best they can be.”
While the 790-bed medium- and minimum-security Junee prison already had a number of programs aimed at rehabilitating prisoners – including prefabricating houses in its workshops to donate to worthy causes, studying through TAFE NSW Riverina Institute, running a farm on the 60ha of land surrounding the centre, a cultural and activities centre and therapy sessions – Walker felt the What Makes A Man A Man program would be a valuable addition. “For our trial run, we picked a target group that’s the most heavily at-risk group we have here, which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.” Certainly, that group is over-represented in prison, accounting for 27 per cent of the 29,000 prisoners in Australia, according to ABS figures.
From his home in Perth, Daley-Jones reflects on his own path to crime: “I’ve been in prison myself before for various reasons, although for nothing major and never for long,” he says. “But a lot of indigenous men especially are angry and hurt by what’s happened to them in the past. If my participation in this program can help them re-examine their lives and take the first steps to healing themselves, then it will be a great thing. Once a man takes responsibility for his actions, that can be the start of the journey and the path away from destruction.”
One inmate, Ron, 42, dearly hopes he’ll be able to take that route. After watching Daley-Jones’ DVD and taking part in the discussion that follows, he’s quietly reflective. He’s been to prison before, but is now starting to think it’s a dead end. “I identified with Dean and how he grew up,” he says. “My parents were alcoholics and my parents split up and I didn’t see my dad until I was 11. But you don’t have to be a victim. Dean turned his life around and I’d love to do that too. I’d like to be a better person. I have a partner now and a child, and I’m getting too old for all of this. I’d really like to say that after this, I won’t be coming back.”
Fellow inmate Roland, 44, says the price of repeated jail time has been high. He’s lost contact with his four kids, and bitterly regrets many of his decisions. “But I’m starting to see that it is possible to make different choices in life,” he says. “It’s going to be hard, and there will be challenges, but it is possible.”
Canny is heartened by how receptive the men are proving to the program. With other groups – Lebanese men, Anglo men and Asian men – set to go through, he’s now developing a system to check on the progress of the first group who’ve taken part. If the outcomes are positive, the program could then be rolled out through the Australian prison system and even used as a template overseas.
Now the men are joking around as they start their afternoon cookery lesson, making Thai kangaroo burgers with sweet potato mash – without the aid of sharp knives, for obvious reasons. All talk, however, is still on Daley-Jones. Says one, suddenly serious: “If he can change and make such a success of his life, I reckon we all could.”