‘I grew up in Darwin, small community … Sort of grew up around a lot of drugs and alcohol, violence as well. Mum and Dad were … never together. So sort of self-taught myself coming up through the years and that.’
Levi grew up with his Aboriginal parents and younger brothers. His parents were separated and shared custody of their children, and this instability led to Levi missing ‘a lot of primary school’. Even so, Levi believes his parents did the best they could in raising their sons.
‘They tried hard and they still tried to get me to school … I still give my mum that credit. She’s been a single mum. Pretty tough cruising ‘round the buses with six kids.’
When not in school, Levi would spend most of his time with older children, ‘hanging around the local shopping centre’. The group started engaging in petty theft that quickly escalated. ‘Started off little shops, most of it like little Hot-Wheels cars … It got to bicycles. I’d rob bicycles and that. It was motor cars … It just got worse from there.’
When he was 10 years old in the mid-2000s, Levi was arrested by the police, removed from his mother and placed in foster care for a week by the Department of Child Protection. But, as he told the Commissioner, ‘That sort of made it worser’. Removing Levi from his family led him to rely on his friends more, leading to time either ‘couch-surfing’ or living on the streets. By the time he turned 11, Levi was remanded in juvenile detention.
‘That’s when my friends became my family. And I thought nothing less of that. They were my family and that’s it … Wasn’t an angry kid. I was a pretty happy kid and got locked up. I wasn’t depressed or anything, I was pretty happy. I had all my cousins, all my family there, uncles and stuff as well.’
In detention, Levi noted that there were no doors in the shower cubicles and guards were often stationed in the bathrooms. One guard in particular would make inappropriate jokes.
‘The cubicles were just like across from each other and they had no door on them. No privacy at all, you had a guard in there. And there was a bisexual guard in there as well. And he would make jokes and that and try to be funny about things.’
Levi told the Commissioner that some young inmates were engaging in sexual activity with each other, which the guards were aware of but did not prevent. He also found the youth workers often behaved inappropriately. ‘It’s an all-boys home, that’s what it is. And they’re all talking crap, that’s what it is. They’re s’posed to be role models, the youth workers and that. They’re carrying on with us too ... It was just creating an unhealthy mind.’
At one stage, Levi met a prison officer who became his foster carer and helped him turn his life around.
‘But then I had this man, he took me in. It was probably the last carer that I ever had. His name was Jeff Potter and he taught me a lot. Like that’s when I started snapping out of it. He taught me what it was to be a proud Indigenous person. That’s what it was about. He was a prison officer and he just inspired me and he got me into all the right things. Just sort of brang the best out of me, with my sports, my running and all those things. Put me into athletics, a bit of basketball, bit of footy as well. I think I was 13, 12 maybe.’
‘I stopped doing certain things, for example breaking into houses. I thought “Well, I’m not gonna break into houses because I seen the way he lived”. He gave me opportunity. He said to me “See this house? What’s mine is yours. This is your family now, bro”. We had a bit of an emotional ride as well … He helped me take 10 steps back and have a look at the big picture and see in 10 years time that all this, my mates, they’re all gonna be the same or get worser … I got to the point where I didn’t wanna get into trouble. I focussed and I did the right thing. And I rode to school every day, I didn’t wag.’
In spite of Jeff Potter’s positive influence on his life, Levi returned to detention after a trip interstate where he fell in with the wrong crowd, became involved with drugs and was found to be in contravention of bail. ‘I shoulda hung with my footy crew and tried another. But always, I don’t know what it was, the addiction or, like a curse in a way. I ended up getting in a bit of strife.’
Now a young adult, Levi has spent time in prison but is determined to improve his life. ‘I knew I had to teach myself something. I changed for a while, I snapped out of it. I started being good. I started on courses on myself. I wanted to achieve something in life.’
Levi has received counselling in prison and has also engaged in an educational program. He believes prison rehabilitation programs should focus on psychological health and credits Jeff Potter for his positive life attitude.
‘I reckon that a lot of things revolve around mental health. Like they’re punishing the body and not helping the mind, that’s how it seems sometimes … Because of Jeff, everything that I think about and I grew up, all these positive thoughts that I had, it always comes back to him … If it wasn’t for him making me this person, teaching me and showing me the good things in life and how to live I probably wouldn’t even be sitting here.’
Levi never reported his experiences in juvenile detention, but is now concerned that his younger brother, who has recently been remanded, will be exposed to a similar environment. ‘I think back now and I think about my little bro … That’s probably my main concern, ‘cause I got a little brother and that’s the only person I’m worried about …
‘I guess, like, at the end of the day when I think hard enough and I look at myself and I think of how I became … Everyone has it rough and I never feel sorry for myself.’