The judge began to explain how today’s proceedings would be conducted, but I wasn’t really listening. I was troubled, not liking why I was here; to ask for an aboriginal boy in my care to be sent to an adult jail.
Robert was 17, and had spent most of his life in foster care or juvenile jails. With his parents both violent alcoholics, his sister already dead in a car accident, he may have felt he had little left to lose. That wasn’t unusual: many of the boys in McNally Training Centre, where I was Superintendent, were aboriginal, and their life stories were almost uniformly depressing. But Robert was different; a leader, not because he was smarter or kinder, but because he would beat the shit out of anyone who didn’t do as he asked. He ruled supreme in ‘The Block’, our high-security unit.
It was a nasty, forbidding place, with high walls topped with loose bricks and broken glass. The boys slept in a row of cells with heavy steel doors, and the staff relished slamming them with such force that the floor shook. Most of them were ex-British army, and they saw their job as straightening these boys out, even it meant they had to break them a bit in the process. In my role as ‘the Super’ as they called me, I was trying to change this culture, but largely ineffectually. These men had seen off the Germans and the Japanese, and they were buggered if they were going to let a wet-behind the ears intellectual tell them how to do their jobs.
My agony was that it was a deputation of these very staff who had come to me requesting that I seek a court order for a boy be transferred to an adult jail. It wasn’t the first time, but I had always said no in the past, because their usual position was that a boy had disobeyed too many orders, and deserved to go to jail. This was different; Robert had hurt another boy, the latest in a string of incidents. Badly this time: in a moment when staff weren’t looking, he had smashed a boy’s face into a toilet bowl, gashing his forehead and almost breaking his jaw. They were right on this one. I couldn’t keep the other boys safe in the same space as Robert.
So a few days later here we were in court. Only the judge, a clerk, Robert’s family, their lawyer, I and a barrister supporting me were there at first, but a few police officers filed in later when I gave evidence. Robert had seriously aggravated the police time and again, especially when he filed complaints against them for assaulting him. I have no doubt his complaints were justified. I recognised a chief superintendent no less, and a couple of Inspectors, all of whom had well-known dim views about people like me taking over the care of young criminals.
Robert’s mother and brothers and a couple of other relatives were tightly grouped, mother crying, when the judge asked me to step up and make my case for a Section 77 order. The judge seemed to be a decent man; I thought he looked nicer than I felt about myself that day. My lawyer led me through the basics of our case, with the help of Robert’s files which showed a long history of violent behaviour.
Then it was the family lawyer’s turn. He was good, and soon had me admitting that there were many incidents like this one, and that we seemed to be able to keep those offenders in McNally. I knew before he asked what his next question would be. ‘Why is this situation different—why are you singling out Robert like this?’ I felt so tense and alone at that moment, the police licking their lips at the prospect of some real justice for a change, Robert himself looking at me attentively, the family angry and bereft, the lawyer fidgeting as he waited. After a few seconds he prompted, “Mr Meldrum, shall I repeat the question?’
Then I knew I had to talk to Robert, to bypass all these spectators. I was sure I could rely on his honesty. I asked the judge “Your honour, in answering that question could I speak to Robert?’ The lawyer stated to harrumph, but the judge shushed him and said that sounded like a fine idea. Robert and I turned to each other. I said ‘Robert, have you hurt other boys in McNally?’ ‘Yes Mr Meldrum.’ Have you hurt them badly?’ ‘A couple of times, yeah.’
‘The boy this week, why did you attack him?’ ‘Because he had it coming.’ ‘Robert, think about this carefully before you answer me. If you stay in McNally do you think you will hurt other boys?’ I guessed the lawyer would object, and he did, but the judge waved him down. Robert didn’t hesitate. ‘For sure, there’s lots of them deserve it.’
‘You know I’m here saying the other kids aren’t safe around you, so I think you have to go to Yatala jail. Can you see why I think that?’ Full eye-to-eye contact, and he straightened up and said ‘Yeah, it’s probably the right thing to do.’ I looked over at the family, and again at Robert. I think we all looked worn-out at that moment, and deeply sad. But I honestly don’t think any of us were angry at each other. In a fucked-up world, a very damaged and dangerous boy had just run out of options.
The lawyer said ‘No more questions your honour.’ The police folded their arms and smiled at me. I felt angry with them. Were any of them there when some compassion and flexibility could have come up with better solutions than charges of ‘abusing a police officer, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer’? Had they beaten him personally? When would they recognise their role in protecting community safety began with prevention, with understanding and foresight, with some love even?
The judge’s quiet voice cut across this tableau. With no preamble he found the order to be justified, and instructed that Robert be taken to Yatala prison forthwith. I stepped down from the witness box, as did Robert. Then he crossed the floor and shook hands with me. I said something lame like ‘Look after yourself in there.’ He said ‘Thank you’ then looked at the floor as he turned and was led away. I’m good at doing calm and composed in a crisis, but I was working hard to keep it together just then.
The Chief Superintendent came over to speak to me, which was something I had hoped to avoid. But he surprised me when he said ‘I guess there were no winners here today, but good on you for putting that lawyer in his place.’ In terms of mutual understanding, it was better than nothing, and I accepted the offered handshake. I bowed my head to the departing judge, and walked out with a stone in my heart.