‘Mum and Dad, they were doing a good job till the police came and arrested me for something I didn’t do’, Matty said. It was his first charge and it landed him in a children’s detention centre, in Brisbane. It was the mid-1990s, and Matty was nine.
‘I was terrified. I was pretty young.’
He was 30 when he spoke to the Commissioner, and in jail. Since turning 18 he’d been in jail for all but five and a half months. Before that, he’d been in and out of youth detention centres. From that first incarceration as a nine-year-old, until he entered the adult correctional system as an 18-year-old, sexual abuse had been a regular feature of his institutional experience.
He didn’t know the names of his abusers. Most of them were older boys, who raped him in the dormitory and in the communal showers. It was one of his recommendations to the Commissioner: that younger boys should not have to shower or sleep with older boys. That would be one way to reduce the risk of sex abuse, he believed.
His regular abuse by older boys also led to him being labelled ‘gay’. As he got older, he reacted violently to these taunts, and would often get into fights.
He wasn’t sexually assaulted by guards or officers at the institutions, but he was physically abused by them. They imposed cruel punishments – Matty remembered scrubbing the floors and cleaning the toilets with a toothbrush. They dragged boys round by the hair. ‘They’d bash ya’, Matty said.
As a teenager, he was put into isolation. ‘One day they just left us there in the cell for three months’, he said. ‘Just me and this other bloke. They just left us there, with nothin.’ The way the boys were treated became a media story. Meanwhile, in his cell, Matty began self-harming. ‘I just started slashing up.’ When he was 17, he tried to commit suicide.
Matty’s mother died when he was in his early teens. She never knew he’d been sexually abused. Matty’s brother had similar experiences in the correctional system. He received compensation through a Queensland Government redress scheme, but tragically died just a few days after he got his payment. Matty applied for redress too, was but was too young to be eligible.
Matty has suffered anxiety, depression and other mental health issues throughout his life. He’s been using heroin since he was 14. ‘I’m a heroin addict, you know – I just get on the gear so I can block it all out.’ Many of his criminal offences have been related to his drug use. But he hasn’t used heroin for three years, he said. He has a daughter who he’d recently established regular contact with – she ‘brings hope back into my life’, he said.
His experiences also mean he can’t trust people, especially since the death of his brother. ‘I don’t trust no one … I just do my own thing.’
He believes that mentors can make a difference, but only if the relationship can be ongoing. ‘You need people to be there, not just fuckin’ step in and step out … You just need straight-up people.’ At one point in jail, he met an older prisoner who’d become like a mentor to him: ‘Best thing that ever happened to me. Like changed my life, really.’ Matty had been in the ‘jail scene’ at the time - bashing people, fighting – and under the older prisoner’s guidance, that changed. ‘Taught me how to read and write a little … making me do stuff for myself.’
He wished that as a kid, when he got into trouble, there’d been options other than detention. For Aboriginal kids in particular he’d like to see intervention programs that take them out country and teach them skills in a safe environment. A program like that would have been good for him. ‘Yeah, it would have made a difference. Someone you can trust and that. You learn by trusting, you know … There’s gotta be a better solution than sending people to juvie all the time.’