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Erroll James's story

Erroll grew up on an Aboriginal reserve in Western Australia. There was a lot of drinking and domestic violence in the family home. There was also a lot of feuding and fighting in the community, including threats being made to his family and their house being deliberately damaged. Sometimes he would escape to his grandparents’ place just to get fed and have safe shelter. Often he went to school with no food and bruises from his mum’s floggings.

In the 1980s, when he was 10, Erroll ‘got in with the wrong crowd, started doing silly shit’, and got into trouble with police for theft and vandalism. He was sent to a juvenile detention centre and initially thought this ‘was a safe place, none of that shit [like] at home’, but soon learned it was just as violent. ‘I institutionalised myself because I thought I was safe from home, and the shit went on in there.’

At times he was cheeky and aggressive towards staff, and they responded by threatening and physically assaulting him. One time he was grabbed by the throat and told he would be moved to a section with older boys who would rape him. ‘I started spinning out.’

The worst of the guards was called Mick. He was always commenting about Erroll’s body and also smacked and pinched his backside and this used to mess with his mind.

‘He’d joke about your arse, your nice body, or “you got long hair, you look like a girl”, call you by certain names ... He scared me ... He was an animal, he’d smack us on the arse, he’d touch you.’

Mick also exposed himself to Erroll in the showers, and threatened him with sexual violence. All of the boys were scared of Mick and kept away from him if they could.

Erroll was released from the centre but got into trouble again in his early teens. This time he was sent to a different detention centre. He hoped it would be better but Mick had been transferred there and continued to threaten him sexually, make sexual comments and invade his privacy in the shower. ‘I couldn’t get away from him.’

Over the year or so that Erroll was there he was often thrown into an isolation cell. This was supervised by Mick and another officer who further threatened to sexually abuse him –threats which became worse when they had been drinking.

‘They threatened us. They would smash my skull against the wall a lot and would say, listen to that sound – empty. Empty like your arse, but we will fill it up”. They said other shit. They fucked with my head ... They nearly broke me, those dogs. I think maybe they did.’

Erroll never reported the guards’ behaviour. He thought other guards were already aware of it, and chose not to act. He also did not want to get a bad reputation for reporting against someone.

When he was released Erroll tried to tell his family what he had experienced. ‘I tried to tell Mum but she said I was always getting into shit and causing trouble. I don't think she cared or didn't believe me or something so I just shut up.’ His brother ‘told me not to come home saying and telling him that shit’.

Erroll did not feel safe in his home or community. As he grew older he continued to get into trouble and graduated to adult prison. He began using drugs, and has an extensive criminal history.

‘I don’t want to keep doing this. I want it to be different. I get angry real quick, I don’t know why. Sometimes I think people are staring at me or out to get me. I’m trying not to be angry, to kind of do things different.’

Having missed out on education while growing up he has now learned to read and write while in prison. He received a payment through Redress WA, but did not tell them the full story of his time in care because he did not feel he could trust them. He has never received any counselling about his experiences at the centres.

Erroll never reported Mick to police. Although the guard had a major impact on him while in custody, he’s still unsure whether he wants to report him now. ‘I hate the system. I hated it then and I hate it now. I started to hate coppers and authority and I can’t stop, I just get sort of funny. Like a feeling that they want to get me and I have to fight before they do stuff to me.’

He shared his experiences with the Royal Commission to try to help himself and others. ‘Maybe it will help all of us. Maybe talking will help. I want it to. Maybe you and them will help keep us safe. Help us heal, you know, from like deep on the inside where you don’t show or let no one in.’

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