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Marlene’s story

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Following the riots NSW child welfare authorities were determined to suppress Marlene’s rebellious nature and deter others from following her lead. She became one of the first teenagers to be incarcerated inside the new Institution for Girls at Hay.

On September 24, 1961, 14-year-old Marlene Riley was forcibly drugged with mind numbing Largactil, handcuffed and spirited away in the dead of night to the converted jail in the remote town of Hay. “When they walked into the cell that night, it was out of the ordinary, so I knew something was up. They just said to me, "Marlene, we want you to take this medication. I said, 'No'. And I knew it was a psych drug and I wouldn't take it, so they said, ‘We're gonna have to - if you won't take it willingly, we're going to have to do it by force’."

For the next 13 years hundreds of teenagers would suffer a similar fate.


At Hay the girls were subjected to a harsh and regimented existence in which they weren't allowed to talk to one another and had to march everywhere with eyes downcast. The girls were locked in their cells at 6.40pm where they had to stay in their beds until morning and were forced to sleep facing the door. If they rolled over during the night the guards rattled the door and got them out of bed. They were made to stand beside their bed for an hour before they returned to bed.

Marlene remembers one particular night a sadistic senior officer tried to sexually assault her in the cell:

“He opened up my cell door. Of course, you jump to attention straightaway, eyes down to the floor, facing the door, and he started talking to me. ‘Hello, Marlene. I'm here to see you. You lay down on that mattress and get your pants off’.

“I looked up at him and looked him in the eye and said ‘No’ and he said, ‘You will. I've had all the other girls here and I'm going to have my way with you too’. I screamed out; ‘He's trying to rape me!’ and the other girls started screaming too. It was the longest 5 or 10 minutes in my life.”

Four weeks after the attempted rape the girls were interviewed by Edward Moylen from the NSW Child Welfare Department in Sydney. Marlene Riley was accused of making the whole thing up, but in the following days she recalls the officer involved left the institution and never came back.

Marlene was transferred from Hay back to Parramatta in June 1962 and an assessment for her release was considered: "She is by nature a rebellious girl and has found it difficult to maintain acceptable response. However she has tried hard and can be said to have satisfied minimum requirements. She has now been detained for almost twelve months on this committal and the superintendent considers she could be given further trial in the community. Her discharge has been recommended." (Letter from Director to Under Secretary August 27, 1962).


Ministerial approval was given for Marlene's discharge and she was released on September 5, 1962.

The tragic disintegration of the Riley family by the NSW State Government continued to impact on Marlene as her younger sister and brother, Christine and Gary, also followed the incarcerating child care process through the institutional systems at Hay and Tamworth respectively.

Gary, who was later shot during a Sydney underworld feud in 1983, left the NSW Child Welfare system as an 18-year-old apprentice in violent crime. Convictions for armed robbery and violence resulted with a lengthy criminal record. It also included classification as an intractable prisoner that earned his transfer to the Alcatraz of the NSW prison system at Grafton.

Gary Riley was 30 when Gregory Francis McCarthy gunned him down in 1983. McCarthy was also a product of the state-run NSW child-care process. For Marlene the disintegration of her family and the death of her brother was the product of the brutalising child-care system that stole her childhood.

“The daily ritual of floggings and bashings took its toll but we would say to each other; ‘Try not to cry. Don’t let the bastards see you cry’”. Marlene recalls. “I remember standing there and trying not to get knocked off my feet but I wouldn’t cry. When they locked me in isolation that is where I would cry. I am 56-years-old now and I still find it hard to cry.”

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books). Full essay is available at

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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