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Wesley James's story

Until staff from the Royal Commission visited the jail where Wesley was serving a sentence, he had no idea that what he experienced as a child was sexual abuse.

‘I didn’t realise sexual abuse wasn’t just the act’, he told the Commissioner. ‘I wasn’t aware there was grooming and stuff like that. There’s a lot of occasions I can remember now … there was heaps of it when I think about what was going on. It’s horrible, it’s a sickening feeling.’

Wesley’s parents separated when he was young and he spent a number of years living in caravan parks with his mother. He ran away often and his dad gained custody of him when he was 11, by which time Wesley said he was ‘a pretty messed up little boy … just doing bad stuff’.

He was made a ward of the state and, in the late 1980s, he was sent to a youth detention centre in Queensland. On his first day there – and on many occasions thereafter – he was subjected to a degrading strip search.

‘Sometimes you’d feel that uncomfortable with whoever was doing it because of the way they look at you you’d refuse to take your clothes off. So they’d lock you down in isolation which was – they used to tell us boys downstairs in isolation was a morgue where they used to keep dead bodies – and they’d lock us down there for days and weeks on end.’

Physical violence was endemic at the centre, which Wesley described as ‘being assaulted by the screws, being choked by the screws, being thrown around, being punched, being called all sorts of names’.

Some of the officers would give the boys explicit magazines at night, then come back later to try and catch them touching themselves.

When he was 13 he was moved to another detention centre, where he said the level of violence was just as bad and there was also a lot of sexual abuse between the inmates, mostly from older boys on younger boys.

‘I can remember one time we was down in the remand yard in the swimming pool and another boy he actually got penetrated by another boy. I wasn’t going to say nothing because maybe they’d do that to me. So nothing was said of it.’

Wesley said all the boys knew what was going on and he is sure the officers knew about it because boys were constantly watched. He didn’t talk for fear of retribution. ‘It was scary as all shit knowing that no-one was doing anything about it.’

He believes the officers tried to groom him by giving him special treatment – such as extra food or extended visits with his girlfriend – but because he was physically strong and fit he was able to fight back against any physical threat.

When he did hit back at the guards he got charged with assault and taken to court. The judge told him he had no right to touch the officers, but Wesley said it felt like they had no rights at all, so after a while the violence and abuse became normal behaviour.

‘I believe it was to make us break, to make us weak, to make us scared to come back. I think they went about it all wrong … We were kids doing bad things put in a bad place and had to do bad things to survive. It just made us worse than what we actually were … I come out worse, hating more, with no respect for the law, for my elders.’

After he got out, Wesley turned to drugs, alcohol and more violence. He didn’t manage to complete schooling beyond Year 8 and has spent many years in jail, back where he started. However, he is hoping to complete his schooling when he gets out of jail this time.

Wesley hadn’t told anyone of his childhood experiences, until he came into contact with the Royal Commission. He has found the process hard to deal with.

‘I physically feel sick, like I’m going to be sick. It’s not normal ’cause I’m not sick. I’m a full-grown man, you know. Just the thought of it, and what I’m saying is not even scratching the surface. I’m just trying to do one thing at a time, there’s so many.’

He said some of his mates from back in detention have committed suicide as they were unable to cope with their past, the way he has been able to.

Wesley had heard that for many people, even if they have put the trauma behind them, they often find it comes back later in life.

‘Yeah well it has now. Even when youse guys come up I sort of laughed. Thought it was a joke that youse had come up and asked that. At first I said “No, I don’t want nothing to do with it”. But then the lady turned around and said, “What if you can prevent this happening to another kid?” And I was like, “Hell yeah”. It shouldn’t happen to any child, girl or boy.’

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