When Wes was about nine or 10 years old, he was severely beaten up by older boys in his Melbourne neighbourhood. When the police were called, they took no action against the boys. This response shaped Wes’ view both of himself and the police.
‘That’s where it starts and from there, who gives a fuck about us. We lived in commission flats, if we wandered outside of the area the police would herd us back in … you adopted that and then eventually there’s no respect there for you, so you don’t carry much respect for others.’
From then on, Wes began to get into trouble with the law. ‘We never had housing. It’s early 70s and a single mum was a pariah … We moved [a lot] … I sort of never really lived at home again after … I had my 15, 16th and 18th birthdays locked up – so that’s most of my teenage years gone.’
The first time he went to juvenile detention it was to a state-run centre. It had three different dormitories, ‘One for the mature kids … a middle one … and there was one for the younger kids’. Wes was placed in the middle one. He found the environment challenging but managed because he, ‘was fit … I done weightlifting, I done a little bit of boxing, I played football … I was an active person’.
One guard in particular, Mackenzie, tormented the boys. ‘My view now is, he desensitised the environment to sexual abuse because it was constant … all these connotations – if you had a mate it was a homosexual relationship – it was just crap.’
Mackenzie would also encourage sexually suggestive games in the boy’s recreational time. Wes knew that the older boys were sexually abusing the younger boys, ‘Everyone knew what was going on’. On one occasion Wes was put into lockdown in a dormitory for the older boys, not his usual dormitory.
‘They started this sort of pushing me around and standing over me … Mackenzie come to the window a couple of times [to look into the room] … one of [the boys] had me in a headlock – and this is … where I fucking panicked. Mackenzie had come to the window and the other [boy] got his penis out and he fucking started walking toward me – I will fucking never forget this. Mackenzie was at the window laughing at me and pointing at me …
‘They were more wrestling with me, trying to get me to submit, you know what I mean?’
Wes was saved by his fitness, he said – he managed to escape the boys, and then the dormitory doors were opened.
Wes was soon transferred to another boys’ home, run by the Salvation Army, where he experienced no sexual abuse but received physically brutal treatment and solitary confinement. ‘Only time I’ve ever felt like killing myself’.
When he was leaving the state-run detention centre at the end of another sentence, he had to fight another older and bigger boy to stay out of solitary confinement. Wes knew that the loser of the fight would be sexually abused. ‘You become the weak one’.
‘The night before I was due to go get paroled, Mackenzie was on … for some reason they decided to put me in solitary … Mackenzie said, “Oh look, if you fight, you can stay out, with your mates”.’ After tea, the boys fought: ‘Everyone made a ring … Poor old kid lost and had to stay there and I won and got out the next day.’
Wes wound up in adult prison, ‘It makes you a pretty hard person, jail … I was violent in the end’. He made a decision to improve his education and undertook a psychology course. ‘I learned about mapping the emotions … taking control, being responsible for your own actions and shit’. He then completed an anger management course that ‘changed my life’.
Since then he has had a long career in trade unions because he realised that, ‘Political decisions will make the social consequences’ but, he told the Commissioner, he has never felt as though he truly belonged. ‘It’s funny because I’m a loner in a collective – always felt like a loner in a collective … I’ve been on my own. My marriage only lasted a few years.’
Wes felt compelled to come and speak with the Commissioner because he has known many boys and adults who were significantly impacted upon by sexual abuse in the detention system.
‘There was a lot of shame involved. A lot of shame for people. And one of the reasons that I’m here is that quite often people just fucking commit suicide, and I think, well, what was their experience in life that they haven’t been able to tell someone? … At the end of the day I think Julia Gillard was a wonderful human being for doing this.’