Keenan Mundine: 'Change is possible with the right support'

Warning: Strong content

After years of being left to sink deeper into the quicksand of the justice system, in 2013 Keenan Mundine was given a rare lifeline and grabbed it with both hands.

Instead of another jail term with no support, Keenan asked to participate in an intensive 18-month drug and alcohol rehabilitation course. He was one of 10 people accepted into the program. As a ‘repeat offender’, he was the one considered most likely to fail. He succeeded.

He enrolled in TAFE to study youth work and was offered his first paid job. On his first day as a youth worker, he found out he and his partner Carly were expecting a baby. Keenan is now happily married and raising his young son Khaius with another child on the way in September.

He now has his own business — Inside Out Aboriginal Justice Consultancy — dedicated to raising awareness of the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system. His lifetime experience in Indigenous communities means he can effectively engage them in decisions that affect them.

Here, Keenan shares his story with Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights Campaigner Julian Cleary:

“I was born in the ‘80s and grew up on The Block in Redfern in the early ‘90s. ‘I was fortunate enough to experience a close-knit Aboriginal Community, however at that time, Redfern wasn’t a great place for children. Heavy alcohol and drug use was out in the open. Alcohol, weed, heroin, cocaine … it was just rife.

Overdosing, violence, police – it was just normal to me. Then at seven years old I lost my Mum. I was the youngest of three boys. When my Mum passed away, we stayed with her brother – he tried to keep us kids together. About one year later, they told us that our father was dead. He hung himself in the car park we had to walk through to get to school.

“My story is one of courage and resilience, and proof that change is possible with the right support”

Keenan Mundine

Coming from a poor background, I lacked the material things a kid wanted. I saw these guys with nice shoes and nice clothes and I wanted what they had. Some of them were family members, older cousins and some of them went to school with my older brothers. They said, ‘He’s alright, he’s one of us’. They became my role models. They bought me shoes, clothes, hat, shirts, and I was like, ‘This is the life!’

Then came the eye-opener: the way they made their money involved breaking the law. With them, I started doing anything I could do to make money. I left school in year seven or eight and it became my full-time job.

That’s how I was taught to be a man and to look after myself. My everyday battle was, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight? What am I going to eat?’ I was couch-surfing and sleeping at friends’ and family’s places wherever I could.

My battle with the justice system

At 14, I went to juvenile custody. That began my long battle with the judicial system. I’d hang around these boys, do what I needed to do to survive, get arrested, go to a juvenile detention centre. Then I’d get out and go back to the same group of boys who were still doing the same thing.

Every time I got out, I had no skills, no qualifications, no support. I actually had no official identification until I was 24. A lady in the prison system helped me get my birth certificate for the first time, and I think she was a bit shocked when I touched it and started crying.

Ten years ago, if you’d asked me where I thought I’d be now, I’d have said, ‘In jail or dead.’ I never thought there was a life beyond that.

“Ten years ago, if you’d asked me where I thought I’d be now, I’d have said, ‘In jail or dead.’ I never thought there was a life beyond that”

Keenan Mundine

But then in my 20s, I got a huge wake-up call. I was talking to a group of Indigenous inmates who were laughing and joking about serving a life sentence between them.

I looked at these two older guys and I thought, ‘I don’t want this life.’

‘Things started to change’

I enrolled in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and things started to change for the better. I was slowly reintegrated back into the community and had access to community organisations whilst I was still in custody. The program assisted me with learning life skills and getting the practical support I needed, such as opening a bank account and playing sport as part of leading a pro-social lifestyle.

Upon release, I was able to secure my first job and develop new networks and partnerships. One of these was with Amnesty International Australia, which afforded me the chance to meet Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016. I shared my story with the PM and encouraged him to adopt justice targets under the Closing the Gap initiative. My main message during this important meeting was to involve Aboriginal people in decisions that affect them – Indigenous people have the solutions.

Keenan and NSW activists meet with the Prime Minister

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being locked up at appalling rates. We need some serious reforms in the way we deal with young people and crime. We need more funds diverted to interventions at all levels of the juvenile justice system.

We must also acknowledge that most children in the juvenile system are ‘hurt’ kids and not ‘bad’ kids. It’s not just coincidence that there’s a high correlation between children in care and children involved in the juvenile justice system. And there need to be more alternatives to locking our kids up – imprisonment should be a last resort. The systemic racism that’s inherent in our legal system needs to be explored and addressed.

Our kids need to be connected to their culture, families and communities. This is how they’ll find their place in this world.

By sharing my own story, I want to show people who are going through the same things that I went through – there is hope. You can make it out of the system.”

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Julian Cleary, Indigenous Rights Campaigner
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