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World’s only GAY jail: How men were sent to one prison to ‘cure’ homosexuality

World's only GAY jail: How men were sent to one prison to 'cure' homosexuality 2

 It is now the state’s preferred prison for celebrity inmates, but Cooma Correctional Centre has a dark past which in the 1950s saw it designated as the world’s only gay jail, where convicted homosexuals were sent to be ‘cured’.

A former lunatic asylum, Cooma has more recently housed high profile criminals like Salim Mehajer, Jarryd Hayne and Roxy Jacenko’s husband, Oliver Curtis.  

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But few modern inmates in the chilly confines of Cooma’s 150-year-old jail  –  situated in the Snowy Mountains  in southern NSW – would realise that gay offenders were once incarcerated there together so as not to ‘contaminate’ prisoners who were ‘normal’.

Homosexual sex was illegal in NSW until 1983, and for decades before considered  an ‘abominable crime’ by police who used handsome officers to catch men in ‘unnatural’ acts.

The state’s Vice Squad rounded up hundreds of men in parks, public toilets, railway stations and cinemas and charged them with acts of indecency, or more dire, buggery.

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Within a year of Cooma opening as a special prison for convicted men classified as ‘homosexual remedials’ or ‘homosexual recidivists’, the NSW Government had launched a ‘scientific evaluation’ of its inmates who would be studied to find ‘a cure’.

In the 1950s, the coldest jail in the state Cooma Prison (above) became the world's only exclusively gay penitentiary where convicted homosexuals were sent to be 'cured'

In the 1950s, the coldest jail in the state Cooma Prison (above) became the world’s only exclusively gay penitentiary where convicted homosexuals were sent to be ‘cured’

Shirtless prisoners sun themselves in the yard at Cooma Correctional Centre in the 1970s

Cooma was still into the 1970s the jail for men convicted of homosexual sex, not decriminalised until 1983

Shirtless prisoners sun themselves in the yard at Cooma Correctional Centre in the 1970s when the jail was still the place for men convicted of having homosexual sex, which was not decriminalised until 1983 

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ONLY GAY JAIL IN THE WORLD

The state’s leading judicial officer, the Attorney General, would proudly declare Cooma as the only exclusively homosexual prison in the world. 

It would continue as such into the 1970s, when a royal commission into prisons heard the Cooma jail sewing room – where footballer Jarryd Hayne was recently employed for $24 a week making prison greens – was a place of rampant sex for inmates.

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Prison chaplain Reverend Brian Burton later wrote a homoerotic novel about the goings on in the cupboards at the end of this tailoring shop.

But it was still happening at Cooma in 1976, criminal Raymond John Moore told the 1977 Royal Commission in Prisons, complaining that ’30 or 40 worked in the tailor shop and just about all of them were homosexuals. 

World's only GAY jail: How men were sent to one prison to 'cure' homosexuality 3

The prison sewing room in the 1970s was known for rampant sex between gay male inmates and trysts in the cupboards down the back with prison guards turning a blind eye 

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The Cooma sewing room today, where high profile inmates like footballer Jarryd Hayne earnt $24-a-week when imprisoned on a rape charge which has been over turned on appeal

The Cooma sewing room today, where high profile inmates like footballer Jarryd Hayne earnt $24-a-week when imprisoned on a rape charge which has been over turned on appeal

‘They carried on their love affairs during working hours often in full view of everyone in the shop’.

He said prisoners bought stockings and female underwear on the weekly buy-ups and prisoners ‘performed homosexual acts quite openly in front of prisoners and prison officers’ but he never saw a prison officer attempt to stop it.

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How Cooma came to have the only gay prison on the planet is explored in the the ABC radio eight-part podcast ‘The Greatest Menace’ by award-winning documentary maker Patrick Abboud.

Above, in the yard of the 150-year-old prison inmates today still endure confinement inside the state's coldest prison which is in the largest town in the Snowy Mountains

Above, in the yard of the 150-year-old prison inmates today still endure confinement inside the state’s coldest prison which is in the largest town in the Snowy Mountains

NSW Police Commissioner Colin Delaney was a shocking anti-homosexual who whipped up community fear with the aid of the rabid tabloid Truth and set  his Vice Squad after gay men

NSW Police Commissioner Colin Delaney was a shocking anti-homosexual who whipped up community fear with the aid of the rabid tabloid Truth and set  his Vice Squad after gay men

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‘SHOCKING MALE VICE’

 It seems to have been the result of the perfect storm of a rabidly anti-homosexual police chief, a moralistic minister, a willing psychiatrist, a shocking tabloid newspaper and the comparative backwater that was 1950s Australia.

The police chief was Colin Delaney, a highly decorated policeman with an obsession against homosexuality.

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A year into his appointment as NSW Commissioner, Delaney declared at a lunch in 1953 that his biggest problems were  the burgeoning road toll and the ‘growing cancer of perversion’ 

He proclaimed that homosexuality was the greatest menace facing Australia 

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Delaney would later proclaim that ‘homosexuality is the greatest menace facing Australia’, giving Abboud the title of his podcast, and that this danger to society had to be stamped out.

Aiding his mission to do so was a climate of hysteria, whipped up by Truth newspaper.

In 1954, the racy tabloid ran a story – and it wasn’t an opinion piece,  headlined ‘Shocking male vice must be wiped out in Sydney’. 

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Reg Downing (above) was the Attorney General responsible for turning Cooma prison into the world's only gay jail at a time when homosexuality was seen as a threat to society

Reg Downing (above) was the Attorney General responsible for turning Cooma prison into the world’s only gay jail at a time when homosexuality was seen as a threat to society

Model of Cooma prison shows the four wings for up to 130 inmates when the 19th century prison reopened in 1957 to exclusively house men convicted of 'homosexual crimes'

Model of Cooma prison shows the four wings for up to 130 inmates when the 19th century prison reopened in 1957 to exclusively house men convicted of ‘homosexual crimes’

HYSTERIA ABOUT ‘PERVERTS’

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The story said: ‘Gaol and the lash are the only way to put a stop to shocking homosexual perversion in this state before it gets out of hand. 

‘The time for namby pamby so-called psychiatric treatment advocated by what this newspaper designates as medical crooks, has passed. 

‘Give them the only treatment they will understand—the lash and gaol. Then perhaps, these revolting creatures will be restrained.

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‘Police Commissioner Delaney made the alarming statement this week that homosexuality in Sydney was worse than anything overseas. 

‘The police have an unwholesome job in trapping these filthy creatures … the nauseating task of dealing with these offenders. 

‘Parks, lavatories and playgrounds are the hunting grounds. These pests also openly frequent cafes and night clubs’.

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‘A startling number of the perverts are artists, authors, stage celebrities, professional and business men—all members of the so-called upper strata—the police have to exercise the utmost caution, and be 100 per cent sure of their facts before they make an arrest.’

Darcy Dugan, a bank robber and a habitual escapee known for his hatred of gay inmates, told the 1977 Royal Commission on Prisons that 'homosexuality spread like a disease in jails'

Darcy Dugan, a bank robber and a habitual escapee known for his hatred of gay inmates, told the 1977 Royal Commission on Prisons that ‘homosexuality spread like a disease in jails’

Professor Trethowan's fabled report on how to 'cure' homosexuality was never released after he went back to England and the sexologist who died of a mystery illness left illegible notes

Professor Trethowan’s fabled report on how to ‘cure’ homosexuality was never released after he went back to England and the sexologist who died of a mystery illness left illegible notes

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WHIPPING UP FEAR

A public debate began, with one doctor suggesting surgery might cure homosexuality, while a prison psychiatrist said it was like a disease and ‘there is a risk that male love will spread’.

Instead of flogging ‘perverts’ as happened in the late 1800s, locking them up and ‘treating’ them was preferred.

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Give them the lash. There is a risk male love will spread’ 

 But the wisdom up to 70 years ago was you couldn’t imprison gay with straight criminals as ‘men might experiment and become addicts … without any restraint’ because it was ‘contagious’. 

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In March 1957, then Attorney General and Justice Minister Reg Downing, reopened Cooma as a prison specifically for men convicted of homosexual acts.

Originally opened in 1873, but closed for more than 50 years, it would house up to 130 inmate sin mostly single cells.

 With Commissioner Delaney’s support, Downing amended the Crimes Act to ensure that ‘buggery’ remained a criminal act ‘with or without the consent of the person’. 

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This removed the previously existing legal loophole of consent; the Consorting Act was changed so that men could be charged with associating with convicted homosexuals.   

Even in late 1977 the so-called scourge of homosexuality in prisons was being examined with certain inmates demanding transfers from Cooma should they find themselves locked up there

Even in late 1977 the so-called scourge of homosexuality in prisons was being examined with certain inmates demanding transfers from Cooma should they find themselves locked up there

Justice Michael Kirby, above as a young man with Johan van Vloten, said he was keen not to end up in prison simply for being with his partner and would not have been made a judge if it had been known

Justice Michael Kirby, above as a young man with Johan van Vloten, said he was keen not to end up in prison simply for being with his partner and would not have been made a judge if it had been known  

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‘HOMOSEXUALITY COMMITTEE’

Greatest Menace host Abboud uncovered an old letter from Downing, boasting that he ‘was rather proud of the fact that I was able to have the government spend many thousands of pounds on the conversion of the old Cooma gaol into an institution to which all convicted or known homosexuals are sent’.

Abboud interviews openly gay former high court judge Michael Kirby, who speaks kindly of Downing as a friend and ‘quiet, gentle, honourable decent man’, but a ‘Roman Catholic who adhered to his church’s view, thought he was fulfilling word of God copied in statues of the law’.

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He thought he was fulfilling the word of God

Kirby admits as a young man he knew special prisons for homosexual men existed ‘where I was keen not to end up’ simply for sleeping with his partner behind closed doors, into where zealots like Delaney extended his force’s powers of arrest.

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On July 1, 1958, Downing, after whom Sydney’s court complex the Downing Centre is named, established a ‘homosexuality committee’ to make ‘an exhaustive scientific investigation’ into Cooma’s inmates, subject them to tests and evaluation.

‘The Government considers that the problem must be attacked with vigour,’ Downing said.

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten (above) married in 2019, but back in the 1960s the judge kept his sexuality a secret even though he has spoken kindly of zealot Reg Downing

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten (above) married in 2019, but back in the 1960s the judge kept his sexuality a secret even though he has spoken kindly of zealot Reg Downing

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Professor William Trethowan (above) led the ill-fated homosexuality committee which failed to produce a report after setback including its sexologist leaving behind notes that were ¿virtually indecipherable¿.

Professor William Trethowan (above) led the ill-fated homosexuality committee which failed to produce a report after setback including its sexologist leaving behind notes that were ‘virtually indecipherable’.

Deputy prisons boss John Morony (above) after whom two jails at Windsor are named was a member

Segregation for 'sex criminals' was a common theme of the day with one cleric saying 'sterilisation' didn't work

Committee members included deputy prisons boss John Morony (left) after whom two jails at Windsor were later named, at a time when segregation for ‘sex criminals’ was a common theme with one cleric saying (above right) ‘sterilisation didn’t extinguish  criminal sexual tendencies’

EXTREME VIEWS

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The committee comprised of a Catholic priest, an Anglican minister, a parole officer,   a biochemist, deputy prison boss John Morony – after whom two jails at Windsor are named – and led by Professor William Trethowan.

Later it added Dr J E Lyttle, who held Norman Haire research fellowship in sexology at Sydney University.

Professor Trethowan was an eminent psychiatrist with some advanced views, warning in 1960 against gambling, saying ‘he would not belong to any club which had poker machines’.

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It was a witch hunt. They believed gay men had to be stamped out 

 He was friends with Dr Harry Bailey, who ‘shared his views on psychotherapy’. 

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The podcast interviewed gay historian Gary Wotherspoon, who described the era as a time of a ‘witch-hunt’ when authorities believed ‘gay men … contaminated society and had to be stamped’.   

Bailey oversaw one of the most disastrous experiments in mental health treatment with his deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford hospital, where 26 patients died; he committed suicide while under investigation.

Trethowan was also on a committee which recommended that ‘mentally retarded people’ should be registered with the NSW Government.

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Downing’s ‘homosexuality committee’ under Trethowan was meant to take two years to find cures for homosexuals, but laboured for five due to some insurmountable problems. 

The Greatest Menace podcast was compiled by award winning documentary maker Patrick Abboud (above) who explores Sydney's gay history in the 20th century

The Greatest Menace podcast was compiled by award winning documentary maker Patrick Abboud (above) who explores Sydney’s gay history in the 20th century

The 'homosexuality committee' head professor Trethowan was friends with Dr Harry Bailey (above) whose disastrous deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford hospital saw 26 patients die

The ‘homosexuality committee’ head professor Trethowan was friends with Dr Harry Bailey (above) whose disastrous deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford hospital saw 26 patients die

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SECRET REPORT 

Committee members made regular visits to Cooma prison to interview homosexual inmates, getting 350 to complete 30-page questionnaires and 100 to do ‘Catell’ personality tests to deduce masculine and feminine traits.

Both the questionnaires and tests were to be given to ‘normal’ people as a control group, but never were as the wheels fell off the committee.

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Trethowan returned to his native Britain and sexologist Dr Lyttle became ‘gravely ill’ and returned to Ireland where he died, leaving behind notes that were ‘virtually indecipherable’. 

During his tenure as Attorney General, Downing had reformed consumer laws and women’s rights, helped abolished capital punishment in New South Wales, set up the Parole Board and the Adult Probation Service.  

 FOUR ‘TYPES’ OF HOMOSEXUAL

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 But the heralded inquiry into homosexuality would never release its findings, and in March 1963 the Sydney Morning Herald published a story saying the committee had only a ‘highly secret’ interim report.

The Herald article anticipated what the report might find, including that ‘most homosexual are produced by their environment, not born’ and ‘often experienced defective relationships in childhood’.

The ‘staff correspondent’ author had clearly been leaked some content, saying other findings would include gay men had a ‘lack of balance and affection in family, lack of socialisation and often a domineering mother’. 

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A tolerant attitude towards homosexuals is sadly lacking 

Also, that ‘homosexuals felt sense of isolation or “apartness” even as young children’ and there were ‘four very different types of homosexuals’.

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These were  the ‘adolescent going through normal stage of experimentation’, the ‘practising homosexual who is a consenting adult’, the ‘male prostitute’ and ‘the homosexual who interferes with young children’.

Patrick Abboud describes the mystery report as ‘the holy grail’ and speaks with different gay historians who say it was never produced, or at least they could find no trace of it.

Possibly its death knell is hinted in the article’s final paragraphs, which express the hope that the committee’s findings could help produce ‘a mature and tolerant attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality … sadly lacking in the community at the moment’.

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Cooma's prison museum (above) contains artefacts from the days when inmates convicted of 'homosexual crimes' such as buggery were flogged with the jail lash

Cooma’s prison museum (above) contains artefacts from the days when inmates convicted of ‘homosexual crimes’ such as buggery were flogged with the jail lash 

Despite being freezing temperature in winter when sever cold fronts move through the Snow Mountains town, Cooma prison is used for celebrity inmates who need protection

Despite being freezing temperature in winter when sever cold fronts move through the Snow Mountains town, Cooma prison is used for celebrity inmates who need protection

ROYAL COMMISSION 

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It also asked if laws could be changed ‘so that homosexuality between consenting adults no longer be punishable’.

However, although homosexual offences were ‘on the decline’ the Vice Squad still regularly patrolled public lavatories, parks and railway stations.  

 In 1973, the publication Woroni ran a letter from Bob McLeod, decrying Cooma prison as ‘an institution for ‘homosexuals or pimps, men who have raped young girls or boys’ as well as young men raped in heavy jails who needed protection.

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He described the ‘disgust’ felt by Aboriginal inmates who look ‘at men kissing in the cells at warders walking away and upon discovering one male (engaged in a sexual act with) another’.

Young men are frequently raped when they enter jail 

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 In 1977, notorious criminal Darcy Dugan,  a bank robber and a habitual escapee who had once been sentenced to death, told Royal Commission on Prisons that ‘homosexuality spread like a disease in jails’ and that it was cultivated under ‘ideal laboratory conditions’. 

Dugan, known for his hatred of homosexual inmates , said ‘frequently young men were raped when they first entered jail’.

Raymond John Moore testified about the Cooma tailor shop and how he had been transferred to Parramatta jail, but only after constant complaints. 

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Vulnerable inmates, including transgender women who would have been targeted in male prisons like Lithgow and Goulburn were still being sent to Cooma prison as late as 2010.

Patrick Abboud interviews retired prison officer Les Strzelecki, who as State Manager of Museums at Corrective Services NSW, operated its Gaol Museum located at Cooma Correctional Centre. 

In recent years it has housed so-called celebrity prisoners including inside  trader Oliver Curtis, seen leaving Cooma prison in 2017 after a year inside

In recent years it has housed so-called celebrity prisoners including inside  trader Oliver Curtis, seen leaving Cooma prison in 2017 after a year inside  

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A jubilant Jarryd Hayne walks from Cooma prison after his conviction on a rape charge was overturned in February

A jubilant Jarryd Hayne walks from Cooma prison after his conviction on a rape charge was overturned in February

JAIL’S MODERN ERA

Strzelecki explains that at least in more recent decades Cooma fulfilled the need ‘for a smaller institution to house prisoners at risk’.

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Geoff, the son of doctor who went inside Cooma prison to treat prisoners, said that if inmates who were homosexuals were ‘put in Long Bay or Goulburn, they would be attacked. Put them in space where they were safer’.

Gail Eastway the editor The Monaro Post newspaper in Cooma grew up in the 1960s in the town served by a baker who was her father.

There is a need for a prison to house inmates at risk 

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She said the Cooma was dubbed ‘The Queen City of the South’ and the local knowledge was homosexual prisoners facing parole would ‘reoffend and get arrested and go back to their special friend in the prison’.

Cooma was known in the late 20th century as a prison for ‘priests, police, politicians and paedophiles’, or those at risk of being attacked in the general prison population.

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Cooma Correctional Centre's former inmates include disgraced detective Roger Rogerson (above), one of a number of crooked cops who were sent to the facility for protection

Cooma Correctional Centre’s former inmates include disgraced detective Roger Rogerson (above), one of a number of crooked cops who were sent to the facility for protection

Cooma’s more notorious inmates of the past include paedophile priest Vince Ryan, the former Manly hotel proprietor who murdered his wife, Andrew Kalajzich, killer and escapee Graham Gene Potter – who was recently recaptured- and numerous crooked cops including Roger Rogerson.

In recent years it has housed so-called celebrity prisoners including jailed footballer Jarryd Hayne, insider trader Oliver Curtis and  Salim Mehajer.

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