Ngaga-dji (Hear Me) is a collaborative project by the Koorie Youth Council which voices the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Victoria’s youth justice system. Mirrim Nga-ango's story represents many First Nations young people who need to be listened to and supported to connect to their culture and community.
This story contains distressing content, including family violence, sexual abuse, physical violence, mental illness, self-harm, suicide and coarse language. If these subjects raise any concerns for you, please contact the relevant support services listed here.
It’s weird to want to open my eyes in the morning, not try to sink back to sleep. I want to see my room, my paintings, my posters, remind myself that I am home. This is where I learnt what home means. I’ve always lived between houses, never had a place where I felt safe all the time. I was uncomfortable, on edge everywhere, even with mates and family. This Healing Centre taught me that home is community and culture, it’s Aunties and Uncles and workers, it’s unconditional welcome.
I always lived between houses so I could hide from whatever I needed to, never standing still. The first person I ran from was Dad, his strap and his rage. He’d always say sorry, cry just a little bit, make my favourite dinner and say he’d never do it again. He hated himself for hurting me and promised to be better.
Dad was also the first person I ran towards when I was sad because Mum was always locked up, and when kids called me them names, when I couldn’t get to sleep. I’ve been in trouble since before I was born. It’s in my blood, my family. My dad stole a fucking car to get Mum to hospital to give birth to me. Mum was born in prison. Growing up, no one I knew had a job. Dad went for so many he lost count. Most of my family’s been inside, starting with juvenile detention (juvi). We were stuck living on a disability pension, so I learnt how to fend for myself really young. I’d find my own feed, run from place to place to find a spot to sleep that wasn’t too bloody cold. That was my normal. Same for most of my mates, we all slept between houses and streets.
Illustration by Jacob Komesaroff @jkcomments
Dad’s rage grew as I grew. Mum had been locked up for longer than ever and Dad had been to so many funerals he stopped talking about ‘em. I was always on edge at home. I started to feel Dad’s anger in me too but I kept it locked away. I guess my dad passed on his anger to me like he passed on his eyes and hair. I absorbed so much of his loneliness and hurt over the years that it had to come out somehow, I couldn’t stop it.
I tried to be quiet at Dad’s house to keep on his good side, so when I got to school I felt my anger boiling me up like a kettle ’til it overflowed and I got dangerous. I started snapping at people, couldn’t concentrate. I’d sit on those little plastic seats, so scared, so angry. I used to walk into the classroom and see the teachers thinking that I was just gonna give ‘em trouble.
Last grade I finished was Grade Three. I had a nice teacher that year. Every school I’ve been to kicked me out. Expelled in Grade One, Grade Two, Grade Four and Year Seven. At one school they told me to come in from 9 am to 11 am. At the next one, they said, “Just come in on Tuesdays.”
I got so behind it was impossible. They didn’t want me, so it was better for everyone that I stopped trying. I never got reading and writing so there was no point in staying. Most of my mates dropped out too.
I can’t remember a time when my life was in control. I guess because I’ve always struggled to push my fucking anger down. Started smoking weed real young, ‘round ten, to stop my anger from boiling over, keep calm. The crowd I smoked with didn’t care if I screamed or got a bit rough. They let me get my anger out. I felt like they wanted to hang with me, lots of ‘em were my cousins.
We’d steal from Coles for something to do in this hole of a town. I reckon if we had a basketball we wouldn’t have offended for fun. Most other times we just stole for a feed. Once the cops picked me up and I asked ‘em “how else can I get food, huh? It’s two years ’til I’m old enough to work so how am I meant to feed myself without a paycheck?” Court said if I did a ropes course with cops I wouldn’t get in trouble. Why? I don’t know how they thought climbing some bloody trees would change me. It’s like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid. Most of the time cops picked me up I didn’t know what my charges were or nothing, or what kind of behaviour bond thing I was on.
My family didn’t come to help me do the interviews with those dogs, so I always had to wait ’til the next day. I spent hours going crazy in the cell. I stopped caring, got numb. I didn’t get all those bullshit cop and lawyer words so I’d just say what they told me to, take their cordial and crackers and get a lift back to Dad’s. After a while I wanted to feel something. I needed harder drugs to feel safe, strong, in control. My anger got bigger, stronger than me. It was impulsive, erratic, it would make me do things I didn’t want to. My head said “STOP!” but I had no control. I couldn’t stop. It was like watching something else take over my body. There were other times I’d have such a big hit I didn’t even remember what happened, like it turned off my mind. I don’t know if I did some of the things I was charged for because I can’t remember, I went down for them anyway.
Illustration by Jacob Komesaroff @jkcomments
Round that time I had some fellas try and get me off drugs. A couple of old people in suits who’d maybe smoked one joint in high school read about drugs in a textbook and decided they could fix me. They didn’t get me, my story. I pushed them away because I knew they wouldn’t stick around anyway. Someone else tried to get me to stop stealing and hanging out with the brotherboys, tried to get me to appointments while I was sleeping under a fucking bridge, avoiding the strap from Dad and finding money for my drug debt.
When I stayed at Dad’s house I’d watch for cops all night with a table jammed up against the door. I stared at the curtains waiting for the headlights to shine through. One night those dogs came for me. Lights, sirens, everything. I slid under the bed as they slammed through the house, my hiding spot from Dad. Cops found me and dragged me out. My fear and anger boiled over. Cops threw me in the back of the van so hard that my head hit the grate. I started gagging from the stink. The seat was sticky with blood or spew or piss from whoever was in there before me, I freaked.
When we got in the cell those dogs knelt me in front of the bed and threw my head into the mattress again and again and again. When it was over they left me overnight without a blanket or anything. I’d pissed these cops off for years so I felt like I deserved it. At court I got a lawyer who was kinda cool, he actually listened, explained stuff ’til I got it through my thick head. I’d been running for so long, avoiding court. Now I was here I dreaded the outcome.
I walked into court and my stomach dropped, my whole body was shaking. It was all so intense I really thought my body would give up on me and I’d die. Didn’t understand the magistrate’s dictionary words.
My lawyer tried to explain but all I could hear was my pulse thudding in my ears. At the end, I heard the judge say I was free! I walked out of the dock to leave and got tackled by cops, I’d got the words confused. My first night in the lock-up they made me take off all my clothes and sleep naked in a suicide blanket. A guard watched me the whole time, watched each bit of clothing fall to the ground. They told me it was because I was Aboriginal, to make me feel safe.
You’ve gotta be tough in there, otherwise, you’re meat. Lots of bigger boys had been in on remand for months, years, so they were used to it. My first day inside a kid left with a broken collarbone, I heard it snap. I got tough, made people scared of me to survive and hide that I was shit-scared myself. I heard it’s good to get a name as being tough there before you go into adult prison.
Illustration by Jacob Komesaroff @jkcomments
The worst days were when I’d dream I was out. Then I’d wake up and be locked in and it was so real. I’d lie in bed staring at the empty wall, the tiny window in the cell door. I’d listen to others banging on their doors, waiting to be unlocked. Sometimes they’d be quiet and that’s even scarier. Are they okay? Dosed up on behaviour medications?
I’d wake up thinking about who I’d have to get today to stop them getting me. Who’d be wearing long sleeves to cover what they’d done to themselves the night before? Who’d be strip-searched? We all went in there damaged, but that place really fucks you up for good. At my next court date, I had a judge I’d seen five years before, “Why are you still here?” she asked. I had that same good lawyer, he was a blackfulla too. He knew my story and told me to talk up to the judge.
“The Court’s job is to help you stop offending, we haven’t done that very well yet,” the judge said. She made a deal with me to try one more thing as long as I didn’t give up on it. “You don’t belong in prison,” she said. So that’s how I ended up at this place, this centre surrounded by bush and the kind of air that makes you want to breathe deep.
This is the first time I’ve left court and had somewhere to be, something to stay clean for. What I needed was to feel loved and be safe, to feel home. Now I have a place to be, open space, people who give me a reason to care about shit. I’m learning to read and write. Dad visits sometimes too.
Home is full of culture. I look at the art, listen to stories and feel part of something bigger than I ever imagined. I never did this kind of cultural stuff before, when you have fair skin people who don’t think you need it or something, ‘not a real Aboriginal’.
There’s a big ghost gum here I sit under and paint. I’ve never sat still for longer than five minutes but I can focus on one canvas all day under that tree, thinking about all the culture that’s been in this place, letting the calm and peace into my body. I try not to think about where I’d be without that tree, this family, this place. Finding home saved my life.
Mirrim Nga-ango (pronounced (mir-r-rim nga-un-go), means ‘deep breath’ in Woiwurrung. Mirrim Nga-ango’s name reflects him feeling safe to breathe deep in his new home.
This story has been de-identified to ensure children’s privacy and safety. The process of de-identification involved creating composite accounts that reflect the real lives of many Aboriginal children. All experiences and events included in the story are real with details and names changed for confidentiality. Stories have been reviewed by a focus group of young people with lived experience of the youth justice system.