Keenan Mundine in front of a large painting of Indigenous art.

Keenan Mundine on his life of incarceration, and making Justice Health more culturally safe

Keenan Mundine on his life of incarceration, and making Justice Health more culturally safe

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

We hear plenty about the importance of sharing, and understanding the lived experiences of others. At this week’s 2021 PHAA Justice Health Conference we were privileged to hear a very raw, yet powerful story of the lived experience of Keenan Mundine.

Keenan is a proud Aboriginal man who grew up in Redfern. As a young teen, through circumstances largely beyond his control, Keenan found himself in trouble. Much of his early years was spent in juvenile detention and later in prison.

Keenan is now using his life lessons to help others. as the co-founder and Deputy CEO of Deadly Connections Community and Justice Services Limited, an Aboriginal, community-led not-for-profit organisation that breaks the cycles of disadvantage and trauma to directly address the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the child protection and justice systems.

Keenan told the 2021 Justice Health Conference how his life started in the worst possible way, losing his parents as a child and being separated from family. His young life quickly spiralled out of control, leading to a lengthy involvement with the criminal justice system.

‘There’s a lot of stats and data about overrepresentation and the injustices of health services in prison,’ Keenan said. ‘I’m but one of those statistics.’

‘I entered the criminal justice system at 14. I was already experimenting with drugs and alcohol at that time. Going through the juvenile justice system, I was in and out when I was 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18.’

Keenan summed up his teen years as being ‘around violence, drugs, alcohol, police brutality, over-policing of my communities, and living in poor conditions.

‘I didn’t get any skills, advice, or any therapeutic intervention to be able to help me deal with what I was exposed to in the community.

‘Thinking back now, it was a very missed opportunity for the so-called experts to sit down individually and talk to me, to understand what happened to me, and how I was going to develop into an adult.

‘None of these things were given to me, and I was made to feel like I’m the problem rather than the challenges in my life are the problem.

‘Nobody talked to me about mental health as a juvenile. Nobody talked to me that my childhood trauma would possibly lead me to forming addictions.

‘So, by 15, I was a heroin addict and every time I went in and out of juvenile institutions, I would have to go cold turkey when withdrawing.

‘I didn’t have my family. I didn’t have my mum. I didn’t have my dad. I didn’t have anyone to make me feel safe in these environments and it really made me distrust these places that I was in.

‘I was highly vulnerable.’

Keenan said that when ‘the system’ let him down, he sought support from others to deal with the trauma in his life while in custody.

‘It was just lucky that I had fellow peers and cousins in there from my community that would do the job that a psych or the health service was supposed to do. They’d check on me and sit down and talk to me and make me feel as safe as I can.

‘I didn’t know how to ask for help back then and for me as a juvenile it was a very missed opportunity not understanding the impact of violence, the impact of poverty and marginalisation.

‘All of these things that I had to figure out for myself and basically the system told me I’m the problem and the only place for a person like me, who presents as the problem is to be institutionalised and to be in custody. So, my experience was horrendous.

Keenan explained how he spent time in many juvenile centres, sharing his life with other juvenile offenders. They grew older together and ultimately the majority ended up in adult prisons together.

His life was a blur of confusion caused by heavy medication and a cycle of being transported from prison to prison, never quite knowing where he was, or where he might end up the next day.

‘The adult system is a whole complex layer to battle,’ Keenan said.

‘At 18, after exiting the juvenile system, I spent nearly two years and eight months on remand fighting my charges. While I was on remand. I wasn’t housed in one centre. On any given day I would pack my belongings and I’d be taken down to the reception of that prison and not notified about what prison I’m going to. Then I’d jump on a truck with other males and be escorted to a prison somewhere else in the state.

‘In that two-years-and-eight-months I think I entered and exited more than 10 different prisons.

‘At that time, I lost many family members during my incarceration, so that’s a whole other layer.

‘Losing loved ones and not being able to say goodbye. And not really understanding the impact of it until I came home. And the people who’d kept me safe weren’t around anymore.

‘I didn’t know where I fitted in, and I didn’t know where I belonged. But when I was in prison and in detention I knew where I belonged.

‘So, it was really messing up my mental health a lot. Taking me out of my community. Bringing me back into the community, and not giving me the skills to understand my community.’

One day Keenan asked for help which he said was a waste of time.

He was judged to be at risk of self-harm and as a result Keenan was placed in a cell with others because of concerns for his safety.

‘Not one of them (the prison’s medical staff) came to check on me, to ask if I’m ok and what’s going on. They did all of these risk management protocols which once again made me distrust the nurses and the staff because nobody sat down with me as a human being, and as a father, and as somebody who’s going through something and gave me the time.

‘They just went through all these systems and processes and I never once asked for help again after that.’

Keenan now shares his story in the hope he can help others from his mob avoid the making the same mistakes he made in his life

‘The best thing I would want to see coming out of this conference is for Justice Health to look at ways to make all their clinic practices more culturally safe for our mob. Whether that be putting some more Aboriginal nursing staff or training staff in there to get boys comfortable, to talk about their health.

‘I now run and operate Deadly Connections with my wife (Carly Stanley, CEO and co-founder) and one of the biggest things I talk about with the boys in my community is my mental health.

‘I’m now a hard-working father and a husband and I’m paying my bills. But my experience haunts me every day. I wake up and I don’t want to go to work, I don’t want to see anyone. I just want to lock myself away and that’s what comes from being institutionalised.

‘I talk to the young people and to the elders I have access to about mental health, about seeing councillors, about sharing and about creating a space in the community where, as formally incarcerated brothers we can come together and sit, and heal, and have a feed.’

Keenan’s final message to the Justice Health Conference…

‘I hope I’ve given some people a bit more insight about my years in custody. and ask that we treat each other with more dignity and respect.

‘Whether it’s a female or a male; this is someone’s daughter; this is someone’s son. Someone’s mum, someone’s dad, a nephew or a niece; just sit down and hear them.  That’s all they want.

‘That’s all I wanted at my greatest time of need and crisis. Someone to sit down and say ‘you’re allowed to feel like that. It’s ok. Life’s pretty shit. But this is how we come back from it, and this is how we take care of ourselves’.’

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