‘I used to win gold medals,’ Norbert said. ‘I played nearly every sport. Used to do hurdles, long jump, shot put. I used to win everything, you know what I mean, when I was younger.’ But all that changed after his mum’s death.
Norbert’s memory is patchy. He can’t remember how old he was when his mum died, but it was the 1970s, and he knows he was still a kid, maybe 11 or 12. His father moved Norbert and his siblings to a relative’s place where ‘something happened’ and things went to ‘hell’. Norbert ended up living on the streets.
Picked up by the police, and ‘locked up for no reason’, Norbert refused to live with his father. He had family he could have been put with, but instead, he was made a ward of the state and sent to a government-run receiving depot in Victoria. ‘I was put into a place where they turned the key and I wasn’t free anymore,’ he said.
An incident there set a lifelong pattern of silence. When a female staff member detained him and asked to be touched, he ran out, spoke up, and ‘got flogged’. Accused of being a liar and troublemaker, he was chucked into a ‘slot’, a solitary cell, without any food or light for three days.
Norbert quickly learned to say nothing. When a ‘king pin’ tried to stab him for sticking up for the ‘younger blokes’, he smashed the boy’s head into a door. The guards bashed him and told him he’d do time, but he didn’t say anything. You shut up, and ‘cop what you cop,’ he said. You can’t look weak.
Even among the boys, the code was to keep quiet. The ‘screws’ would get the older boys to sort out the younger ones. In a pack, they’d attack a boy in his bed, physically and sexually, or take him away for hours. Where they were taken to, no one knew, but what was going on was pretty clear, even though, when a boy returned, he never spoke up.
‘You don’t lag on anybody,’ Norbert explained. ‘Doesn’t matter if it was an officer, screw, or who it is, or another inmate, know what I mean? It’s a no-no. You learn that.’
Scared of the older boys, the younger ones would push their beds together at night. Scared that an officer would make good on his threat to get them, Norbert and some other boys escaped. They’d hoped to be found and taken elsewhere. However, they ended up back in the reception centre where they were placed in a cell, bashed, and told never to mention the abuse.
When he was 16, Norbert was transferred to the ‘boys’ yard’ of an adult prison. Hating the world and what had been done to him, he was already an alcoholic. In the years ahead, he would take ‘every drug you can take’, and try to kill himself by overdosing or running onto a freeway. He has scars from cuts to his wrists, and is surprised he is still alive. ‘I should not be here. I should be in the ground,’ he admits.
As an adult, Norbert committed numerous crimes, and has been in and out of jail. Except for a teacher who took him under her wing, and taught him to read and write in his 30s, everyone expected the worst from him. He was ‘no good’ and ‘nothing but an animal’. He’d be released among taunts of ‘you’ll be back’.
Norbert was last in jail over 10 years ago. He is married with children. He has stopped taking drugs, and usually does not drink.
He wants to help kids who might likewise end up on the wrong path. But his criminal record, and the associated stigma, keep thwarting his attempts to get work. ‘So how’s a person supposed to change and be good when he keeps being put down?’ he asked.
‘I done me crime, I done me time. I done it, I paid for it.’ Norbert said. So he sometimes despairs about being put ‘back to where I used to be’. ‘I’ve thought of going to parliament house and pouring petrol on myself and lighting myself setting myself alight,’ he said. ‘Thought of going down and just starving myself on the steps.’ Only the thought of his kids stops him.
His memory might be patchy, but Norbert’s position is clear. ‘I’ve been robbed, you know. If they didn’t put me in there, where would I be today? I could’ve been running for Australia, or playing football for AFL’, he said. ‘I might have turned out bad still,’ he admits, ‘but I could have been somebody good, too.’