Born in Melbourne in the early 1950s, Martin spent most of his early childhood in the care of his father and stepmother. When he was about 10 his stepmother had him declared ‘uncontrollable’ and sent to a state-run training centre for boys. Martin vividly remembers his fist night in the cell.
‘I was only a little kid and I cried and cried and cried for hours and no one come. And then I looked up and I seen – they had these silly little windows … and I pushed it. I think I was trying to see if I could get out. But you couldn’t.
‘And they’d put some glass in there and there was some fresh putty. And the first thing I remember: there was fingerprints in there. Some other kid had put their fingerprints in there. And I put my fingers in there and they were pretty much the same. And I thought, shit, there’s other kids here so it’s not so bad.’
Martin went on to enjoy his seven-year stay at the centre, despite several incidents of sexual abuse. The first was at the hands of a nurse who touched Martin inappropriately when he was ‘very, very young’. The others were perpetrated by the man who supervised Martin’s work at a farm outside the centre.
None of these incidents diminished Martin’s fondness for the centre. He still thinks of it as ‘home’.
‘I loved it. I’d never in my life had three squares a day. I had my friends. Sure there was sexual experiences in there but I never had any from any of the officers. Some of the kids, the older kids would sort of try and get a bit funny with you but if you developed a pretty good left hit they left you alone …
‘It was a game. Guys would be getting out or whatever, or we’d run away. I mean, I had that many escapes … it was bloody ridiculous. We used to run away just to go to the Melbourne Show. We’d go to the show then walk back. Twenty-four hours in the slot, back out. It was nothing.’
But the one thing that Martin can’t make light of – the one thing that he still sees as an injustice that damaged many boys’ lives – is the way inmates were treated when they left the centre.
‘The one thing we all had in common was D-Day. The day you got out. All of a sudden that miraculous date come on the calendar and you were called up the front and they give you a little suitcase and you got two pair of pants and a couple of shirts and shoes and whatever, from the St Vinnies. And – I still remember it because it was written in me record – 24 dollars. “Get out” …
‘So I had no chance in life whatsoever. I had no chance. I wanted to get out, I wanted to do things, but I couldn’t do them. You can’t. You go to a boarding house and, okay it might only be $10 a week or whatever, but you’ve got nothing.
‘You’ve got to feed yourself, you’ve got to try and get a job. How do you get a job? I’d never had one. How do I go about it? I can’t ask my dad, I can’t ask my mum. I can’t ring you up and ask you. So what do I do?’
What Martin did was commit crime, hoping that he’d be caught and sent back to the centre. It was a disastrous miscalculation. The cops soon picked him up but instead of sending him back to the centre they sent him to an adult prison. There this 17-year-old boy, who had received barely any schooling, finally got his education.
‘You learn so much. You learn how to get out of places, how to get into places, how to steal cars, how to take advantage of people. You’re not a nice person.’
Martin spent the next decade or so bouncing in and out of jail. Gradually his crimes became more violent and his sentences longer. Eventually he realised that he had to break the cycle.
‘I made a decision … If I didn’t want to go back and I wanted to do something I had to get away from it. I had to stop hanging with the same crowd and just get on with life, I guess. And I did.’
Martin moved interstate and started a new life.
‘I met a woman and we had a daughter and we sort of stayed together a bit out of sufferance for about 15 years but it was good. I still to this day – even though today she hates my guts, but that’s alright – I still think she was the best thing that ever happened to me. She really straightened me up. “Get your mind on the job or get out” type thing. And that was good.’
Martin was a hard worker who got along well with people. He stuck with the same company for years and ended up working alongside police in a high-security environment. Then the laws changed. Criminal records checks were nationalised. Martin’s Victorian record, which had so far remained hidden, suddenly popped up in front of his employers. He was immediately fired.
‘All of a sudden … “Mate, you’re a piece of shit. Get back down the bottom where you belong”. And didn’t I prove myself to them? One minute I’m “Mate this, mate that, do this, do that” you know, laughing and joking with them just like you would anyone else. But then all of a sudden it all comes back to bite you on the bum.’
Martin didn’t let this setback keep him down. He still works hard, caring for his daughter and grandchildren. He hasn’t told them much about his experiences in the centre and in jail. He doesn’t speak much about these experiences at all, and he certainly has no plans to report to police – ‘That’s weak, mate. I’m 65 years old and old school. You don’t talk, no matter what’ – but he has been able to share some things with a counsellor.
‘I think I use her up a bit. I ring her up and say “If you’re out this way you better call in for a coffee”. So she calls round and, you know. I don’t know. I really don’t know. You sort of know in your head: something’s not right.’