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Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Australia still locks up its Indigenous peoples at deplorably high rates. Research shows the revolving-door system opens early for Indigenous children, but there are ways to stop this cycle at the start. LSJ visits a community-led program showing Indigenous kids a future beyond bars. 

Photography: Jason McCormack
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It’s home time on a frigid winter Friday in Sydney’s inner west. The dusk outlines crisp shapes: lights twinkling through lilac skies, silhouettes of rooftops, chimneys on cobwebbed terraces. A tall figure bounces a footy off his toe as he stalks the pavement.

His name is Yillylung Gordon – Yilli for short. The Bandjalung man has walked Sydney’s streets every chilly Friday – and many other nights – since he was placed in his aunt’s care in Redfern at six years old, after leaving his broken family home in Lismore. When he abandoned his second home at 15, the streets became his blankets. Footy (rugby league) remained one of the only consistent companions throughout his 27 years of life.

“I grew up with heavy neglect, heavy abuse,” he tells LSJ.

“Physical [abuse] and all that sort of stuff. In the end I think I just ran away; I thought I was right to go out on my own. Made up my mind, ventured out. And I’ve been on my own since.”

We are trotting down Sydenham Road as it heaves under the peak-hour din of car horns and red brake lights. Over the decades, this arterial road has shuttled displaced youth deeper into the city’s underbelly, west of historically Aboriginal areas like Redfern, where yuppies now inhabit sparkly Meriton apartments closer to the CBD.

“I grew up in Redfern, just another Indigenous kid on The Block,” Gordon says. “I was homeless throughout high school. I bounced around doing some bad things, stealing cars and knocking around a bit of crime, robbery.

“There weren’t many services around to steer me away from that stuff when I was growing up. It’s why I want to do this kind of work. I don’t want kids to go through what I went through.”

The work he is talking about – mentoring and diverting young Aboriginal people from the criminal justice system – is about to begin.

We turn off Sydenham Road and the traffic noise gives way to a babble of happier sounds: basketballs echoing off a court, sizzling snags on a barbeque, children laughing and shouting, bass-heavy dance music. This is Street Smart – a youth outreach program run by Indigenous not-for-profit organisation Deadly Connections in collaboration with Barnados Australia, who cook a barbeque on Friday nights to encourage hungry kids along.

Deadly Connections was founded by Keenan Mundine, a former child inmate who grew up in Redfern orphaned and homeless; but escaped the cycle of incarceration and turned his life around. Mundine and his wife, Carly, Deadly Connections’ CEO, set up the Street Smart program in 2018 – initially by simply roaming the city streets on weekend evenings and making themselves known to Indigenous kids they came across. They would strike up conversations, build trust over time, and eventually divert the kids from potential trouble into Deadly Connections’ weekly barbeques, rugby league and basketball games. They asked Gordon, who previously was a youth worker with other organisations, to join them in early 2021.

One kid snatches Gordon’s ball and starts hurling spiral passes with LSJ’s photographer. Gaggles of school children keep dripping across the road from Marrickville High as the sun sets and the number swells to at least 50. There’s a variety of races and skin tones but most are Indigenous from the local community.

“These kids have their fair share of trauma,” says Gordon. “They have regular contact with the police and are not only targeted – I would say they’re harassed by police. Some of them have drug and alcohol backgrounds in the families. A lot of people have major trauma that they’re trying to run away from by using drugs. We are trying to prevent that.”

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Bandjalung man Yillylung Gordon is a Youth Specialist at Deadly Connections Community & Justice Services, who works with children under 18 in the Street Smart project.

Entering a revolving door

According to a 2019 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise 52 per cent of Australian youth prison populations. The same report finds Indigenous children are 23 times more likely to be in detention than their non-Indigenous peers. It’s hard to fathom as I watch the innocuous tussling of a three-on-three basketball competition playing out against a backdrop of hope and colour at Marrickville Youth Resource Centre. 

Gordon tells me a large proportion of these kids have regular interactions with the police: a result of spending time on the street and being exposed to out-of-home care. Many have already seen the inside walls of youth detention. Some of them have been locked up from as young as 10. 

“It’s a result of circumstances but also peer pressure,” Gordon says. “If you grow up with the boys in the hood, you think they’re your family. You just want to fit in. I grew up not fitting in with any family so I just said, fuck it, I’ll tag along. And I found myself in Cobham [juvenile detention centre].”

He introduces me to 14-year-old Anthony, who has become a semi-regular participant in Street Smart in recent months. Anthony tells me he was released from Cobham this morning. His crime: stealing a pair of sneakers.

“It’s boring as. You just sit there and watch TV by yourself,” he tells me, nonchalantly describing the conditions of juvenile detention as if it were a tedious maths class. He gestures to a 12-year-old friend running over to the basketball court.

“That little one I was just with – we were locked up at the same time. We got done for the same thing and got out at the same time.”

We yarn for a while, then I join the others shooting hoops to warm up in the freezing night. I wonder where Anthony and his friend will meander off to later. It will be a cold night for those with no bed to go to.

Melanie Schwartz, an Associate Professor and the Criminology Specialisation Convenor at UNSW, has spent 15 years studying Indigenous issues in criminology. She also works part time with Weave Youth & Community Services, a not-for-profit organisation in Redfern diverting young people from prison and assisting others to transition into the community post-release. She tells me Australians should be outraged and upset by the continuing overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison – but not necessarily surprised, given their treatment by police and the criminal system.

“I think we have a system that, in practice, criminalises Aboriginal people,” she says. “You only need to look at the experience of young people – many grow up in care, with heavy police presence beginning early in their lives. My children don’t grow up with that.

“The early contact, and early negative interaction with the system through out-of-home care, creates a situation where children become familiar with police and the criminal system. Once the system has its hands on you, the chances of you continuing to come into conflict with that system just compound.”

NSW Police told LSJ that: “NSW Police Force (NSWPF) officers take an oath or affirmation of office and undertake to carry out their duties, ‘without favour or affection, malice or ill-will’. Officers are also bound by a Code of Conduct and Ethics and Statement of Values.”

When LSJ queried about potential racism or racial profiling by officers in the force, a spokesperson said NSW Police officers are required to undertake a range of diversity awareness training courses throughout their careers. In 2019, the force committed to the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (AANZA) “Eight Principles for Cultural Diversity and Anti-Racism and the Training and Education Guidelines on Cultural Diversity” and puts them into practice today via training plus initiatives to employ more Indigenous officers and community liaison officers.

However, Schwartz says it is not necessarily individual officers, but the criminal system itself that has been stacked against Indigenous Australians since their lands were dispossessed.

“For Indigenous kids, there’s not only personal trauma, there’s intergenerational trauma that those kids are growing up with,” she says. “Sending them to a juvenile detention centre only compounds trauma that they are already experiencing.

“The effects of colonisation and the stolen generations – people think of them as historical – but for Aboriginal people those things are not historical, they’re being lived from generation to generation today.”

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A lot of people have major trauma that they’re trying to run away from by using drugs. We are trying to prevent that.

Yillylung Gordon, Deadly Connections

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Deadly Connections’ co-founder Keenan Mundine went in and out of prison until his late 20s when he finally broke the cycle.
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Thirty years of system failures

This year marks three decades since the 1991 Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody reported that Indigenous Australians were dying in prison at unacceptably high rates. The high death rate was reported as a symptom of being incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians. 

Thirty years on, after more than 50 official reports, inquiries, and commissions, we are no closer to reducing that rate. In fact, the rate of Indigenous incarceration has worsened – and badly. It has doubled from 14 per cent in 1990, to 29 per cent of the adult prison population in 2021, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In a statement to the NSW government’s latest review of the issue – the “Select Committee into the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody” – the Law Society of NSW in October urged the government to consider the link between out-of-home care and early involvement in the criminal justice system as a pathway to incarceration. 

“Of the 99 Indigenous people who died in custody, and who were the subject of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 43 were separated from their families as children,” the submission reads. 

“In our view, there should be a focus on systemic strategies that limit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ entry into the criminal justice system … including diverting Indigenous children away from the care and protection jurisdiction in order to avoid the drift from care and protection into the juvenile justice system.”

The Law Society also urged, and has long advocated for, governments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old. Across Australia the age is 10 – one of the youngest thresholds among developed nations globally. Schwartz says it’s far too young for a child to be incarcerated. It also disproportionately affects Indigenous children, who statistically encounter police more often than non-Indigenous children.

“The idea that prison is rehabilitative for a child as young as 10 – I don’t think anyone believes that anymore,” Schwartz says. 

“Kids at the age of 10 don’t understand that what they’re doing is a real problem. That’s the point of doli incapax [Latin for “incapable of evil” – the presumption under Australian criminal law that children between 10 and 14 cannot understand the difference between right and wrong].

“Children don’t even necessarily understand that being picked up by police and being held overnight in a police cell is a major problem. They don’t understand until they’re really deep in it, and they’re known to the police, and courts look at what’s happened in their life so far in terms of their offending history. Only then do they realise they’re kind of in trouble. It’s often too late.”

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The idea that prison is rehabilitative for a child as young as 10 – I don’t think anyone believes that anymore.

Professor Melanie Schwartz, UNSW

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From left: Keenan Mundine, Vik Craig from Barnados Australia, and Yillylung Gordon are part of the volunteer crew that run "Street Smart" youth outreach on Friday nights around Sydney.

A way forward

Wirdi man Tony McAvoy is a criminal barrister who was the first Indigenous barrister to be elevated to Senior Counsel in Australia. He has been advocating for criminal justice reform to divert Indigenous people from prison since he finished high school in the 1980s and began his career at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in Brisbane. 

In the 30 years since the Royal Commission’s report, McAvoy, who chairs the NSW Bar Association’s First Nations Committee, has been trying to convince governments to opt for alternative sentencing arrangements to keep children and non-violent offenders out of prison. He says sending offenders to community-based rehabilitation programs and employment – like Deadly Connections – can empower Indigenous communities and help them to heal, while reducing high incarceration rates.

“All the evidence tells us that the longer you can keep young people away from the justice system, the more chance they have of continuing on with their life in a way that doesn’t result in criminalised behaviour,” he tells LSJ.

“There are many programs that exist internationally, which help children and are alternatives to custody. But Australia still operates as if it’s a penal colony and everybody must be punished in order to make everybody feel safe.

“Unless there is a will, at the very top of the state and nationally, and unless there is serious commitment from the top of the administration and government and from the legal profession and the legal sector to close the gap, I don’t know that there will be any change.”

For Gordon, whose first and only stint in juvenile prison was at 14 years old, the threat of being locked up again may not have been enough to pull him from the criminogenic path he was heading down. But, fortunately for him, sport was.

“I fell in love with footy and was fortunate to be signed at a very young age to Souths [the South Sydney Rabbitohs],” he says. “Once I felt I could step away from my former friends, I began to surround myself with these guys playing footy with different ideas of friendship, values and stuff. That was extremely supportive.”

Gordon couch-surfed while completing his Higher School Certificate, often finding a spare bed at South Sydney NRL star Dylan Walker’s house, for which he is eternally grateful. In 2013, he became the first person in his family to graduate high school. His new mission became helping the next generation of Indigenous kids from his community to stay out of jail and do the same.

It’s a lofty goal that requires the former five-eighth to lower his vision and take small steps. Tonight, that means donning an Aboriginal flag as a cape, lending a footy to the young Rabbitohs fans at Marrickville Youth Resource Centre, and offering a supportive ear or advice to any who may need it. Other times, it means attending their youth justice conferences with police and social workers, or connecting young people with pro bono legal support. 

He spreads his arms wide when talking me through the range of tactics he employs to steer kids away from the system, casually revealing a slogan on his jumper that is quite literally close to his heart. It says: “Kids don’t belong in prison.”

“I don’t want kids to go through what I went through,” he says. “I want to be able to stop the cycle.”