‘I’m only here today to highlight the abuse that’s been going through the system. I realise that I broke the law. I knew I had to be punished. My punishment was being taken away from my parents. I was only a kid you know. I was only young. I’ve struggled with it all my life. I’ve always had this anger build up in me. That’s half the due reason why I’ve been incarcerated most of my life.’
One of Neale’s first experiences in juvenile detention was as a 10-year-old being forced to strip naked for a physical examination. It happened several times and he said the doctor would ‘hang on to your testicles’, something he found shameful and ‘wrong’. When he complained he was punished by losing prospective privileges.
The New South Wales detention centre had a culture of violence and was overseen by a man who’d randomly hit boys for no reason.
‘It was painful and it was degrading too you’, Neale said. ‘Half of us would end up like human rhinos. You’d have lumps on your head, and this is at a young age. It was humiliating.’
In the early 1980s when he was 14, Neale was sent to another youth detention centre. The governor there had ‘pet’ inmates and one was Peter Madison, who was about 18 or 19 years of age. Madison often sexually abused younger boys, including Neale.
When Neale spoke up about his own and other boys’ experiences, he was ignored by the governor and later ‘peppered black and blue’ by Madison and guards for making a complaint.
Neale spoke to the Commissioner from jail and said when he was in juvenile detention it was common knowledge among staff that older boys were abusing younger ones.
‘[Madison] was a grown man with facial hair and he was a man mountain. He was playing first grade rugby union and he’s locked up and incarcerated with us. He was a sex pest. He was. He was in for rape and they knew that, but they didn’t do nothing about it.’
Punishment in youth detention sometimes involved boys being put in isolation cells, and Neale recalled guards waking him every hour and making him get out of bed. ‘It’s like sleep deprivation’, he said. ‘Stand up and quote your name, every hour on the hour in the middle of the night. We were kids. It is appalling. It’s like you see on Guantanamo Bay there. It’s exactly the same. It’s not right.’
Neale’s first disclosure of the abuse was to his wife in the early days of their relationship. She’d been understanding and knew herself what it was like to be in institutional care. Their eldest son had once asked Neale why he was so violent; that had been the prompt to let him know about the abuse.
‘He cried’, Neale said. ‘He understood. Very hard for him. He cuddled me, he just said, “Aha”, held onto me for hours.’
A lot of the boys in juvenile detention had hurt themselves, which Neale saw as a direct result of them being sexually abused. One boy ‘bled to death’ in front of him after cutting. ‘Maybe I was a bit stronger than a lot of other people. A lot of people, they self-harmed, like they slashed up.'
Where he could, Neale tried to advocate for others. ‘I wasn’t just fighting for me, I was fighting for all them other kids. All these young, little Aboriginal kids. It wasn’t just me. See, I’m an Indigenous man … I’m proud of all my heritage. A lot of Indigenous people come from the bush. Incarcerated. Eighty per cent of incarcerations is Indigenous people. Half of these people I know who’ve done three decades are in the same predicament. [Madison] and them, they were sex pests and they weren’t kept away from us. I know at least 20 [victims] off my head and I see their faces and half of them are dead now. That is the sad part, 'cause they had to use drugs or they had to use something or they self-harmed.’
He thought the prison system had probably changed so staff were now better screened, but he said inmates needed screening as well, so sex offenders weren’t put with those who’d committed minor offences.
Boys also needed to be segregated into age groups so 17 and 18-year-olds weren’t placed with 13-year-olds. He recommended the same for adult prisons to keep young offenders safe from the ‘standing over’ he’d seen going on and other ‘things happening behind closed doors’.
‘As long as it gets highlighted’, Neale said. ‘I can understand I had to be punished for doing wrong but punishment was me being away from my parents and brothers and sisters - taken from a country town and put into an environment where I was bashed, I was molested. And it was wrong. It was wrong … Even though I broke the law, I didn’t deserve that.’