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How Do Kids Get Stuck in the Juvenile Justice System, and How Can We Break the Cycle?

Read Monday, 9 Oct 2017

Keenan Mundine, 30, grew up in Redfern, Sydney. Both his parents died during his childhood. He spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile custody before graduating into the adult prison system.

Ahead of our Behind Closed Doors talk this Wednesday, about Indigenous youth detention, Sophie Quick spoke with Keenan about his experiences with the justice system and his ideas for setting Aboriginal kids on a better path.

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Illustration: Jon Tjhia

When was your first contact with the criminal justice system?

My first contact with juvenile justice was at 14 or 15. Then as soon as I turned 18 I came into contact with the adult corrective services.

How many stints did you do in juvenile custody?

Anywhere between five and 15 times. I’ve lost count of how many times I was in and out … The longest sentence I did was 12 months, something like that. The crimes at the time were mostly larceny – breaking into people’s cars and stuff. I can’t remember what I stole [the first time], probably a laptop from a car … I had nowhere to stay, I was couch-surfing, and the only way I could support myself and put food in my stomach and clothes on my back, was just breaking the law and stealing.

The guys who were looking after us in juvenile detention – they’re not equipped to look after Australia’s most vulnerable children.

What were your first impressions of juvenile detention?

For me, at that time, it was a natural progression. All the guys I was hanging around had already been in juvenile detention, so for me it sort of solidified my [position] within the group. It let them know that I’m for real and if they keep me in their circle, and we go on stealing and making money, I’ll keep my mouth shut … By the time I ended up in the system, I had older cousins there, people I already knew, it was a home away from home. For a 15-year-old boy living on the streets in the city, I felt more safe in lock-up than I did on the street. It was clean, it was nice, we had food, we had blankets, we were warm, I didn’t have to worry about people drinking, coming to wherever I was staying … robbing me.

What did you think about the quality of education in the juvenile system?

It’s the same in there as in the adult system: you need to be serving a long amount of time before they take any notice of you. So while you’re on remand or serving minor sentences, you just get the basic reading and writing support when you go through the education system there.

Even when you turn 16 there’s no focus on widening your horizons with early apprenticeships and traineeships, it’s still an educational push to do your HSC and your Year 10 certificate … Many of the boys are not at the equivalent writing and reading levels for their age group. They could be doing something practical and getting job skills to go out and better themselves and make them feel confident and believe in themselves.

With short sentences … you’re not going to get the support or the guidance you need. You’re just going to be housed in a secure facility for four months and you’re going to be fed and then you’ll be let out and your immediate needs and your interpersonal problems that led you to committing crimes are not going to be looked at.

Can you describe your progression from the juvenile system in to the adult system?

I turned 18 in juvenile custody, so my file got handed over straight away upon my release. I went into the community, but I was reporting [for probation and parole] as an adult. As soon as I breached my order and got some fresh charges, I went straight into custody in the adult system. I think I was only out for about four weeks.

As soon as I breached my order and got some fresh charges, I went straight into custody in the adult system. I think I was only out for about four weeks.

I didn’t really care because my immediate needs needed to be met. Where am I going to sleep? What am I going to eat tonight? Where am I going to find a safe bed? [Reporting] was the last thing on my mind when they let me out the gate.

What role do you think racism played in your experiences with the justice system?

I’m really blown away by the amount of research that’s been done on Indigenous justice and poor socioeconomic communities that are heavily policed. Every single piece of research I read now as an adult, I witnessed it all firsthand as a kid. I came into contact with the police as early as I can remember. They kicked in doors, raiding my uncles’ [places], arresting them in front of us, treating them like shit. They pulled me over on the way to school when I was eight or nine years old and searched my schoolbag. In sentencing … not once did they sit down and really acknowledge the early childhood trauma that I had with losing both my parents.

How did you react to the images of Dylan Voller and the Don Dale Detention Centre broadcast by Four Corners? Have you been following the Royal Commission in the NT into youth detention?

I tried to watch the stuff that happened with Dylan. I had the pleasure of meeting the young man a couple of weeks back. I told him, ‘I didn’t even get to finish watching the video because that’s how upset it made me’. They’re saying this is reasonable force on a young child? If you did that out in the community you’d be criminalised and lawfully punished and you’d go to jail for that.

The guys who were looking after us in juvenile detention – they’re not equipped to look after Australia’s most vulnerable children.

Always involve people with lived experience to weigh in on solutions.

What are the policy priorities for improving the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the juvenile detention and adult prisons?

Education in the juvenile justice system needs to be looked at. There are a lot of people with learning disabilities. What are the options available to these people now? How do we identify different avenues for these guys and identify what support they can get? Once in juvenile custody was education, a lot of people get left behind if their reading and writing is already behind. They’re made to feel dumber and dumber, and they just resent paperwork.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

In transition and rehabilitation, we need cultural competency. We need full understanding of the situation an Indigenous person involved in the criminal justice system has come from – whether that be in community or in custody. How are we going to support that person to be confident enough to leave custody? Many of these people have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. Realistically, you need to be able to have someone like me sitting at the table, creating programmes and support networks and facilities to mentor other people coming out of the system.

My main course of action is always to involve people with lived experience to weigh in on solutions. Yes, there’s been fine research. Yes, there’s been fine data-collection and all of that, but it’s not working. So when are we going to acknowledge that, hey, people who have overcome the problem personally might be able to weigh in on this? We need to have them at the forefront of the conversation and at the forefront of the movement.


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