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Richie James's story

Richie told the Commissioner he understands why people use drugs and alcohol.

‘Drug and alcohol abuse, like, for me personally, from what I’ve seen, other kids, growing up with them, like, I look at someone that’s putting heroin into their arm or drinking themselves into oblivion and I won’t question why, because I know why. Whereas other people are like, why do you do that to yourself?’

In his case, he said, substance use was the consequence of his experiences in the New South Wales juvenile justice system in the mid-1980s. He was 15 when he was first incarcerated. According to his reckoning, he’d spent 22 years in 26 different institutions since then. He was in jail when he spoke to the Commissioner, but he believes his history could have been very different.

Richie was sent to the juvenile justice centre in Sydney’s western suburbs after being charged with sexual assault. He was eventually acquitted, but in the meantime he’d been charged with new offences. He’d run away from the centre after being physically and sexually abused by a youth worker there. He’d teamed up with some older kids and, by the time he was picked up and returned to detention, he’d got into trouble for stealing cars and ‘running amok’. The older kids had also introduced him to alcohol and drugs.

‘Like, I know I’m responsible for making my own decisions, but when life’s steered that way by events and you become addicted to drugs, alcohol and all that I wouldn’t have been introduced to.’

He used an analogy to explain what he meant.

‘Let’s say we’ve got a litter of little puppies, and we grab one and we put it with this nice family here, and then we grab the other one and put it with the drug dealers round here and poke it with sticks and tease it all the time, and then like two years later let’s have a look at the difference between those two puppies – and that’s what happened to me.

‘I was introduced to this violent, abusive system – there was no cameras, there was no nothing. And it was up to the judgment of the people who were working there about how you’d be punished and basically your life was in their hands. And even worse, I was in there for something I didn’t do, that I was acquitted of, and proved innocent of. And it wrecked my life.’

Richie said he was sexually abused ‘because of what I was charged with – a youth worker there took it into his judgment to give me a hard time … He was a very abusive guy’. Richie spent time in about four other youth detention centres after that first one, and wasn’t sexually assaulted again. But he saw abuse. At one centre, staff would encourage older kids to abuse younger ones as a form of punishment.

‘You couldn’t step out of line. It was full on. It was extreme. It moulded my life’, he said. ‘I had a horrific time.’

At Richie’s most recent court appearance, his lawyer had asked for a lenient sentence – one that recognised the long-lasting trauma of his experiences as a teenager. Richie repeated the judge’s response: ‘“Well, I’m aware of that, but he needs to get over it and get on with his life”.

‘That judge saying what he said, that was a kick in the arse but really, it’s true. He was speaking to me how a father would speak to someone. Blunt and rude, but it is the truth. I’ve got to get on with life somehow and somehow get back on my feet. It’s so hard … I’ve got nothing.’

Recently, though, he’d been contacted by family members he hadn’t heard from for many years. They’d made plans to stay in touch when he got out of jail. Their support would make a ‘massive’ difference, he said.

Richie has seen many counsellors over the years but had never talked about the abuse before coming to the Royal Commission. He said this was because prison culture expects you to sort things out yourself. It was also because of the lack of continuity in counselling support.

‘There’s no way I’m going to see someone that I’ll sit with and the next week you see someone different. So you put up a wall and I’ve had that wall up my whole entire life.’

But he believed that counselling could be helpful, especially if it was from people with specialised training or from mentors with firsthand experience of difficult issues. ‘I could have been a counsellor. I don’t know what it is, with my personality, but I basically counselled friends all my life … I don’t tell much about me but I’m good at helping other people.’

He had made the decision to come forward to the Commission because he felt the time was right. ‘I think basically I’ve matured. I’ve realised what went wrong in my life ... Things happen for a reason. I was called to a meeting in jail and it ended up being about this. And I just thought yeah, I’ve gotta say something. I have to say something because, like … I don’t want to see kids go through what I went through …

‘I’m not going to make an excuse. I’m just going to give you a reason, and apologise for all the damage I’ve caused and the harm I’ve done … It all resulted from what happened back there. Don’t make that mistake again with future young people.’

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