Ten years ago, if Indigenous teenager Keenan Mundine made a bet that he would not make it out of the NSW prison system, it would have been a wager with reasonable odds.
According to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), as an Indigenous child, Mundine was 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than his non-Indigenous peers.
Once released as an adult, NSW Aboriginal Legal Service says he had a 55 per cent chance of returning to prison within two years.
An orphan from the age of eight, Mundine was also like one in three people released from prison who spend their first night out of prison sleeping rough, according to research by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
“I’d get out [of detention] and two or three of my friends might still be locked up, but there’d be others on the outside. We would steal, sell drugs and do what we needed to survive.
“I didn’t have a place to stay, I didn’t even have shoes to put on my feet.”
“Then maybe I’d be locked up again and others would get out. That was our life.”
You can make it
out of the system
Story by Kate Allman
Digital artwork: Alys Martin
People in my family were shooting up, people outside my house, in the backyard, in the laneway, in the school. Then, throw into the mix that I lost my mum when I was seven years old.
I was the youngest of three boys so I had two older brothers. My father was never really around and when we did see him he was usually drunk.
He was an alcoholic.
“I grew up on the block in Redfern in the early 90s. Heavy alcohol and drug use was rife. Heroin had just been introduced to my community and I watched people from a young age succumb to the effects. Shooting up, overdosing, violence, police, it was just normal to me. They were everyday things.
We stayed with my mum’s brother who tried to keep us together after mum passed away, and then about 12 months later, they told us that we had lost our father.
He hung himself in the car park we used to walk through on our way to school.
For a couple of months we stayed with my uncle.
He had a partner and they were expanding their own family and I think the realisation came: 'How do we keep these three boys together at the same time as starting our own family?'
He didn’t really have much money to look after us. We were still going to primary school at that time, so they made the decision to split us up.
They sent my eldest brother to live in Taree with my mum’s sister. They sent my other brother to live in Queensland and they sent me to live in La Perouse with a great auntie in Sydney.
When I look back on that time all I remember is a big black cloud of sadness and isolation.
All I wanted was my family.
At about 12 or 13, I started looking up to the wrong boys. I saw these guys with nice shoes and nice clothes and I wanted what they had. They took me in and the first day I hung around them, they went out and spent $500 on me.
They bought me shoes, clothes, hat, shirts, and I was like, 'This is the life!'
Then came the eye-opener that the way they made their money involved breaking the law.
to The Block
I moved back to Redfern when I was 13 to hang out with those boys more regularly and at that time there was a lot of crazy stuff going on. Alcohol, weed, heroin, cocaine – it was just rife.
Empty homes were used as drug dens and I was only 13 and trapped in this dark side of life. I was selling drugs, breaking into houses and cars, doing whatever I could for money. I just thought, 'This is it for me.'
I left school in year seven or eight. My everyday battle was stealing, then, 'Where am I gonna sleep tonight? What am I going to eat?' I was couch surfing and sleeping at friends’ and family’s places wherever I could.
The older boys told me, if anyone cared about us, where the f*** were they? They said, 'The only way you’re going to survive is if you step up to the plate and you become a part of what we’re doing.'
When I was 14 I first came into contact with the police and that began my long battle with the law and the judicial system.
I got caught breaking into a car to steal a laptop in the middle of the night. Some police caught me and threw me in the back of a paddywagon. It was probably 3am and I remember that it was freezing cold in the back of that wagon as we drove out to Reiby juvenile detention centre in South Sydney.
My first night in prison was a bit scary but it was sort of another logical step in my journey. Everyone that I was hanging around was older than me and had already been to prison and done that. To me, it was a rite of passage.
I’d get out and two or three of my friends might still be locked up, but there’d be others on the outside. Then maybe I’d be locked up again and others would get out. That was our life.
We hung together, ate together, slept together. We got charged together, went to court together, went to the boys’ home together, got out together. I never thought that there was a life beyond that.
Every time I was due for release, I’d see a caseworker maybe a week before I’d come home. The caseworker would say, 'To get anything you need, just go to this service', but I didn’t have any way to get there. I didn’t even have shoes to put on my feet.
I couldn’t get on Centrelink until I had a Medicare card and I couldn’t get a Medicare card until I had a birth certificate. No one could prove who I was because both my parents were dead. So I just thought, 'F*** it. This is my life.'
That time let me grow a bit as a person. I thought, 'There must be an alternative out there. I don’t know what it is yet but there’s got to be.'
I started questioning everything about what I had learnt. I had a lot of time to think.
I ended up committing another offence under the influence that I don’t remember in 2013.
I pleaded guilty to the charge and the prosecutor asked for a mandatory sentence of five years. It was lucky that I had a compassionate judge because, at that time, my adult record didn’t reflect my juvenile record.
The judge gave me a reduced sentence and put me into a mandatory drug treatment program in Parklea. It helped me grow a lot because it removed me from my peers and I was allowed to have my own thoughts and views without being influenced by the boys I’d grown up with.
When I was 18, I went back to prison and spent three years on remand fighting a charge of break and enter. I had people coming in for murder charges who had their trial and were found guilty or not guilty before my trial even came about.
I was blown away that she had her head screwed on and she was a smart girl. Her name was Carly.
Carly and I became friends and she helped me through the drug treatment program, then one thing led to another. Having her support was amazing. She had her own place out in Canterbury, which gave me a safe place to remove myself from the Redfern community and all the issues that came with it.
A prison support worker had helped me obtain my birth certificate for the first time when I was 24. She was a bit shocked when I touched it and started crying – it represented my ticket out of that former life.
I started studying at TAFE and volunteering at Weave Youth and Community Centre in Waterloo one day per week. That was my first job and the first time I got my tax file number.
When I got out in 2013 I met a girl. I wasn’t looking for love but I met her at a family function and I just started talking to her. It intrigued me that there was an Indigenous woman who actually had her shit together and a proper job.
On the first day I started my
job at Weave, I found out we were expecting a baby.
One of the older boys overdosed and died. One has been sentenced for a murder, another one is fighting a murder charge. They’re still in the mindset of thinking they need to commit crimes to earn money to look after themselves. And they’re surrounded by five other people with the same bleak outlook on life.
This is not just something that was happening in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s happening now. There are kids still growing up in this cycle and they’re going to take the same route that I did. I want to play my role now and try to change things.
I’ve got two kids myself now and I never want them to face the issues and challenges that I had to deal with. I want them faced with challenges, but good ones that will make them grow and be better people.
For people that are going through the same things that I went through – there is hope. Stay in school, keep pushing.
Things will get better. No one’s going to make them better for you. You just need to make the choice when the timing is right to determine your life.
You can make it out of the system."
On the block where I grew up, there were about 30 or 35 terraces next to each other. There were about 16 boys around my age that lived side by side in these houses. About 12 of those 16 are in prison now.
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Selected Redfern photos: Ms Pat Baillie, with special thanks to the City of Sydney Archives.
Keenan photography: Jason McCormack. Additional images: iStock. Design: Alys Martin