Irvin was 16 years old when he moved to a boarding school in Brisbane. It was the first time he had lived out of home and began to mix with the wrong crowd.
In the late 1990s, when he was 17, Irvin was convicted and sentenced to a long sentence. He entered the juvenile justice centre with the knowledge that he would be transferred to an adult prison when he turned 18.
‘It was pretty scary for me because it was my first time in and I wasn’t used to that situation.’
A mentor program was run to assist boys who had never been to jail before. The mentors were chosen from the adult prison population and these men lived within the juvenile population. Irvin remembers that the two mentors in the program when he first went to jail were in their ‘mid to late 40s’.
‘Because I had a lengthy jail term … their role was to explain … the ins and outs of jail … what’s expected and where you stand.’
There were about 14 or 16 youths within the program.
‘Their [the mentors’] rooms were always open … Because it was my first time [in jail] I didn’t quite understand what was happening … we weren’t allowed to have cigarettes but the mentors were. It started off as having a smoke and confiding in them and just talking about … things.’
Irvin now understands that he was being groomed. The special treatment led him to trust his mentor and, initially, he thought the relationship was ‘pretty much innocent’. His mentor though, soon began to sexually abuse him.
‘Certain things started happening and by that stage you were just a bit too late. I felt I was partly to blame and I couldn’t say anything because it was a common occurrence.’
The culture of the juvenile jail was one of violence between the boys, but also between the guards and the boys. This meant Irvin didn’t feel confident reporting his abuse to one of the officers. Despite this he did speak to one of the staff about his situation.
‘I said to one of the officers, “Listen I don’t feel safe, there’s a lot of inappropriate behaviour going on”.’
The officer went and talked to the mentor but nothing changed in relation to Irvin’s abuse. Irvin later received physical payback which made him not want to speak about his abuse again.
‘I thought, “Oh, what’s the point? I’m just in prison, no one’s going to believe me”.’
Some of the other boys reported their abuse too but nothing changed. Irvin also received threats that made him uncertain about his future in the adult prison.
‘There were threats made … “You need to be quiet because I have friends in where you are going” … I felt that I was targeted because I didn’t have any family in the system and I didn’t know what was expected of me transferring through to the adult community. Now I look at it, I probably was a target.’
Irvin found that ‘there was more violence in the boys’ jail than in the men’s jail’ he was transferred to once he was 18 years old.
Irvin couldn’t tell his parents when they visited because of the broader shame of being in prison and he had no designated case worker or social worker he might have felt comfortable talking to about the abuse.
‘There was times where I just didn’t know who could help.’
Irvin still finds it very difficult to talk about the abuse.
‘It’s very emotional for me … I try to suppress everything, using alcohol and substances … I find it very hard to build trusting relationships or letting people in and I just get in a self-destruct mode where it’s not to hurt anyone but I’ve hurt myself. It’s very painful.’
As a result, he has been in and out of jail. Irvin has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and takes medication to manage his conditions. Many of the boys he met when he first went to the juvenile jail have suicided.
‘I’ve been down that road … felt suicidal after it happened. Just the shame and everything. And when I got out I didn’t have anyone to talk to, even though I had a strong structured family, I still felt really alone. I still feel alone to this day.’
He is now keen to seek help and sees value in speaking to the Commission.
‘It’s taken a very long time – it’s been nearly 18 years – and I haven’t really spoken to anyone about it … I came up to a crossroad where I didn’t want to keep on coming to jail and I wanted to find out what was really the problem. It was painful … It’s still a battle because it is very hard for me to tell anyone my story because I don’t want to be judged.
‘The stuff that happened to me I wouldn’t wish on any young boy.’