Mack was first sent to a correctional centre as a 16-year-old. It was in Queensland, in the mid 1980s. He was guilty of driving offences – driving an unregistered car and driving without a licence – and of not paying the fines for those offences.
He had been brought up by relatives, whom he called his parents, and his father had recently died very suddenly. His mother had mental health problems, and Mack’s relationship with her deteriorated after his father’s death.
In the correctional centre, Mack found himself relentlessly picked on by other boys. He had long hair, he said. ‘You just get victimised if you’re different.’ He was also sexually abused. ‘It wasn’t greatly severe’, he said, ‘but to a kid it is … They see how far they can push you’.
Mack didn’t report the abuse. ‘Making a complaint in those days – you didn’t know how to do it. And officers just treated you like crap. And you didn’t want to talk to someone about [the abuse] – so you just tried to hide it. And that doesn’t work.’
The law in Queensland at the time allowed 17-year-olds to be incarcerated in the adult prison system. That’s what happened to Mack. He was released from the juvenile correctional centre, and not long afterwards was in trouble again – more driving offences and non-payment of fines, this time while on probation. He was sentenced to jail.
‘I remember the officer in the reception room at [the prison], clear as day, saying to me, “You can’t vote and can’t drink, but you can come to jail”.’
He was there for about six weeks. ‘It seemed like a long time’, he said.
‘You got no words for [the prison]. It was the worst … It’s so intensely cramped in with people, everyone’s got a problem … You’re in this environment where violence rules, and how badly you can hurt someone for the smallest thing.’
There was no separation there between young and old inmates. Mack suffered serious sexual assaults by older men. Officers paid no attention. ‘There was no one there to listen.’
He was back in jail again as an 18-year-old. He’d been advised by Legal Aid to plead not guilty to a charge of receiving, after buying something that turned out to be stolen. ‘The magistrate said, “Three months jail – that’ll teach you a lesson”’, Mack told the Commissioner.
Once again there was no separate area for young people. ‘I was a teenager in a very hard unit.’ He was sexually abused by multiple inmates. He asked prison officers to move him but they didn’t. One night he suffered a particularly brutal sexual assault, by a number of men.
‘That’s when the worst stuff happened. I cut my wrists that night. And then the general manager released me – early release, got me out of there, let me go. I walked out of there with bandages on my arms, into the train station.’
Mack is in no doubt the system failed him. He was a vulnerable boy for whom there were no protection in place. He asked for help from prison staff and received none. He was released from jail with no support, and no investigation ever carried out into what had happened to him.
‘I was just angry after that. I offended’, Mack said.
Over the years Mack has spent more time in jail than out. ‘I’ve had such short stints out of jail. Usually it’s six months and I’m back in for two years, you know.’ He recalls one positive interaction with the criminal justice system, when he was charged in New South Wales for a driving infringement he didn’t know he’d committed. The magistrate accepted Mack’s explanation and didn’t send him to jail but fined him instead.
‘That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a magistrate stand up for what is right’, Mack said. ‘At the best it’s an impasse between me and the system. No one wins. But magistrates like [that] give me hope that the right thing can happen.’
Mack was in jail when he spoke to the Commissioner. He was soon to be released. He said the abuse he suffered as a teenager had left lasting impacts, among them post-traumatic stress syndrome and an inability to form satisfying relationships. ‘I don’t really have any good people skills’, he said. He finds it difficult to connect with people. ‘I’ve been accused of that by ex-girlfriends, that I don’t open up to them at all.’
He has a deep distrust of authority – ‘Even today if I see a blue shirt, the fences go up like you would not believe’ – and this has been a factor in why he has not formally reported his abuse to police.
During his latest spell in jail Mack has seen a psychiatrist, and spoken about his abuse for the first time. ‘It’s hard for a young person to talk about that. When you got older it’s a little easier’, he said. The psychiatrist has been ‘really good’ and has led him to new insights, in particular about the way he relates to women.
When he leaves prison this time, Mack plans never to return. To keep ending up in jail because of driving and related offences is ‘ridiculous’, he said. He also plans to seek further sessions with a psychiatrist. It’s been such a valuable experience, he said. ‘It makes me want to go and sort it out properly.’