It was the late 1970s in Victoria and 11-year-old Ben was living ‘at home with Mum up the bush’ while his dad was in prison. Ben was a boisterous kid who caused a little trouble and refused to go to school, so eventually his mother sent him to work at the local Catholic church to see, as Ben put it, ‘if they could turn me round a bit’.
They couldn’t. So Ben was put in a state-run boys’ home and set on a path of violence, crime and institutionalisation that ran for 40 years.
His first experience of institutional brutality came at the hands of other boys. Though only 11 years old, and small for his age, Ben was thrown into a dormitory with the older, bigger kids.
‘I was stood over a lot. I was bashed a lot. I was taunted and bullied bad for years … There would be 25 to 30 kids to a dormitory. There was no supervision when the door was locked so a lot of bad things went on to the younger small kids like myself … a lot of rapes, bashings.’
As well as being bashed, Ben was sexually assaulted by one of the older boys. He reported the assault to one of the officers.
‘He just told me to bite me tongue, not to say anything because it would be worse for me in the long run. And he said he’d try and get me out of where I was … which did happen, and I appreciate his help for that. He knew what I was going through.
‘But it was turned back around on me when he started bringing in porno magazines and giving them to us, and would come back and spy through the window to see what you’re up to and things like that. Just deviant things. Not actually physically harming you but psychologically – giving you books and following you around. Just sick things like that.’
Ben eventually moved on to another state-run boys’ home. This one was like a junior jail, with brutal violence perpetrated daily by officers and inmates. ‘That’s where my drug problem started’, Ben said. He and the other boys would sniff glue, paint thinner, anything they could get their hands on.
Ben escaped as often as he could. The cops always picked him up and usually bashed him, sometimes keeping him in the cells for days, beating him whenever they felt like it.
He enjoyed a brief reprieve from violence when he was shunted over to a group home run by several ‘cottage parents’ who looked after the kids in a more supportive setting. While there Ben was able get back to school and enjoy a taste of normal life.
After a few months the situation deteriorated. Ben mouthed off to one of the cottage parents and her husband retaliated by knocking out Ben’s teeth.
Sometime later Ben heard that one of the other cottage parents was regularly forcing some of the boys to have sex with the girls while he watched. Ben and his friends told the man’s wife what he was up to and she screamed at them and hit them. Not long after that Ben was sent back to one of the more brutal boys’ homes.
He continued his pattern of escape, capture and return. On one of these ventures a man followed him from the train to a public toilet and raped him. Ben went to police and told them what had happened and they told him to go away.
In his late teens Ben left the homes for good and spent some time working with his dad until the drugs got the better of him and he quit work and started getting into trouble with the law.
‘We’d all started using hard drugs from the boys’ homes and it just started carrying on and in the end we all ended up raving heroin addicts in Pentridge with big sentences, institutionalised. Couldn’t break the cycle. And that was it. I was gone.’
Ben spent much of the next two decades in jail, mostly for robbery offences. He found that life was easier on the inside. He had a lot of friends there and he knew the rules. But as he got older and witnessed people being bashed and murdered, he began to see life on the inside for what it really was.
‘I had friends back when we were kids and they used to say, “Don’t worry when we get old and go to Pentridge we’ll be looked after as a family. We’ll get jobs and we’ll be all rich and life will be better for all of us if we stick together as organised criminals, going into these gangs and that”. But that was all untrue. Nothing like that ever happened. It was catch and kill your own … I became a very violent person at one stage. I just turned into an animal for years.’
Ben’s turning point came with the birth of his daughter. ‘I come out and I had that baby girl and I seen her face and that was it. I said, no. It’s got to stop.’
He’s off the hard drugs now and has had some sessions with counsellors that have helped him to think positively and stay out of trouble.
‘For the last 10, 11 years, like I said I’ve been really good – after a few times of OD-ing and car accidents and nearly losing my life so many times. I’m like a cat with nine lives. And I reflect on it now and I sort of have a laugh and giggle about it because I’ve got on with meself a bit better. And as long as you’re above ground every day it’s a good day.’