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Cindy-Lee's story

When she was 13 or 14, in the mid-1990s, Cindy-Lee suffered a bad accident. She had climbed a big old tree, reaching the equivalent of about two storeys up from the ground. But the inside of the tree was rotten. It couldn’t support her weight, and she fell.

‘Just a freak accident’, she told the Commissioner. But it was one with lasting consequences. Cindy-Lee had been an A-grade student at her Brisbane school. After her fall, that changed. ‘Life started to get harder with headaches, living in bushes instead of going home, started to hang out with the wrong people.’

Cindy-Lee’s mother tried to intervene. She asked police for help, but was told there was nothing they could do. ‘I wasn’t committing any offences at that stage, I was just lost’, Cindy-Lee said. Her mother turned to family services:

‘Family services said they can’t help me until I’d offended at least three times and been within the juvenile system. But they didn’t do anything anyway, once that had occurred.’

A friend of her mother’s eventually organised an ECG scan for her, which revealed she had brain damage from her fall. Tragically, no tests had been done at the time.

‘They said they could have stopped scarring on the brain and lesions, and that – yeah.’

The head injury, she was told, was the cause of the headaches she’d had and her changes in behaviour – pretty much, of everything that had happened to her since the accident.

Cindy-Lee started getting into trouble with the law and as a 16-year-old ended up in a remand, assessment and treatment centre for young people – effectively, a prison – in an outer suburb of Brisbane. She had some ‘good times’ there, when supervisors she liked were on duty. But some of the supervisors were violent and sexually abusive.

‘You had to knock at night to get out of your room, to go to the toilet. And sometimes you wouldn’t want to do that because you’d know who was on. And you’d go into the toilet and you’d go to shut the door, and they would come in, usually males, they’d sit down and play with themselves in front of you, or want to try and touch you.’

She suspects that sometimes she and others were drugged. ‘You’d wake up in the middle of the night with no clothes on, or half clothes on. There’d be stuff on you … There was a lot of us that woke up like that … I don’t think there was one girl that wouldn’t have woken up, either half clothed or not, or had something occur to ’em.’

Cindy-Lee was regularly beaten while at the centre, and saw acts of terrible violence against others. There were suicides, and she was present when a friend tried to hang herself. Worst of all was the punishment cell. It had no sheets or bedding, and was filthy with other people’s faeces and blood. ‘You could shit and piss and bathe in your own everything, because they just didn’t care’, said Cindy-Lee. The boys’ dormitory was located on the floor above the cell and she recalled hearing them yell out, trying to keep whoever was locked up below them calm. ‘Because everyone knew, once you ended up down there, what could happen.’ On one occasion her wrist was broken when she was thrown into the cell and bashed.

Cindy-Lee didn’t report the abuse she experienced at the centre. It felt like just part of life. ‘It’s like it would just go on’, she said. As a 17-year-old, she was transferred to the adult prison – another brutal environment. ‘Things weren’t good there either … It’s just how life was.’ She sought redress through a Queensland government scheme, but didn’t reveal the sexual abuse she’d experienced. She received payouts totalling $21,000. She has never had counselling, but doesn’t rule it out. ‘There’s also my mum, who knows a lot of stuff. She remembers more stuff than what I remember’, she told the Commissioner.

Cindy-Lee was in a Brisbane correctional centre when she spoke to the Commissioner. Not long before, she’d been involved in a violent episode there, trying to protect another inmate, and she’d been placed in protective custody as a result. That had brought her into close proximity with sex offenders, also in protective custody, including one who’d assaulted a member of her family. Cindy-Lee was finding that very difficult. ‘Now I live with people that I always said I’d never live with’, she said. ‘It’s a pretty hard thing to deal with.’

Cindy-Lee had been in several abusive relationships as an adult. She has three children, who are being looked after by her parents. She hoped they would return to her care when she left prison, but her mother had told her this wouldn’t happen. In the long-term, Cindy-Lee wanted to change her life for the better; in the short-term, her focus was managing the boredom of day-to-day prison life.

‘I go to work – I sew in the morning, work out in the afternoon, and that’s how I try to keep my day every day. But I’ve got nothing else to do. I’ve done all the courses in jail. There’s nothing left for me to do, at all. So, time’s just going by.’

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