Crime, Punishment And Ping Pong

There’s something about Callie (Editor’s note: totally not her real name) that would see her at home as a tattooed and pierced librarian, or perhaps the affable, green-haired psychobilly who opened up your local retro coffee shop. Which is why it first registers as a surprise and then makes overwhelming sense that she works with young offenders. She has a knack for getting on your level, be it a fifteen year old kid in juvie, or an interviewer who thought they’d be the one doing the listening. Within minutes I’m spilling on my recurring wolf-man dream and how, if anything, it connects to the husky who tyrannised my childhood street. Making you feel truly, deeply listened to is no doubt part of Callie’s particular arsenal when working with at-risk kids. When I finally managed to shush my mouth, she shared on prison ping pong, gambling and why the juvenile detention system should do it better.

 “I started as a youth worker, taking kids out and doing stuff in the day to stop them reoffending. Some of them were in juvenile detention, and from there it was a little sidestep to a job as a youth custodial officer. I’m legally responsible for six kids every time I’m on shift, just managing their day to day stuff – unlocking their cells and getting them up, getting them off to school, entertaining them, consequences when they’re not behaving so well, that type of thing. And guiding them when they’re struggling.” “

Each officer has their own way about it. There are older women who’re the nanna figure, others who are more of a mum role, and then some officers that the kids just hate. Genuinely, deeply hate. As for me, I try to remember that we’ve all got a story and there’s a reason why they’re in this situation. I have a saying: the more fucked up the person, the more interesting the story. You hear stuff which you think a young person could – and should – never have been involved in, and you gain an understanding of what’s led them to be in there.”

“I’m always nosy and look at what crimes they’ve committed, and some of them are absolutely horrendous, but you’ve got to treat every kid the same. Their punishment is being inside, we’re not here to punish them. That said, I’m a big believer that if someone is going to give it to me I’m just going to give it straight back. And that is such a good way to level with kids in there. Don’t take shit, but equally, don’t be an arsehole, y’know?”

“There’s no internet, no phones, no laptops. You have to make your own old-school entertainment. Cards, basketball and footy are all big – and ping pong is huge, and I’m not just saying that because you’re writing about it. As long as the tables are not busted up, a game is in play – and not just amongst the kids.”

“KIDS BET BETWEEN EACH OTHER TOO – IF THERE’S A WAY YOU CAN GET MORE CANTEEN LOLLIES, YOU’RE GOING TO TRY FOR THAT. SOMETIMES IT GETS HEAVIER AND THINGS LIKE PERSONAL STEREOS ARE UP FOR PLAY.”

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“Whether you’re working in the jail system or whether you’re incarcerated, it’s a long day. Do I play much? These kids have all the time in the world to build a friggen mythology around the game. I’m not going up against that.”

“Sometimes officers will joke with the kids over a game – “I’ll give you a choc milk if you can beat me, and if you can’t you owe me a coke out of your spend”, that type of thing. Light-hearted stuff which builds rapport. Kids bet between each other too – if there’s a way you can get more canteen lollies, you’re going to try for that. Sometimes it gets heavier and things like personal stereos are up for play. Bigger boys put ridiculous bets on a smaller boy who can’t play very well, and of course the smaller boy loses. Often in more ways than one. Officers try to monitor things like that but it’s impossible to control.”

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“Like a lot of things in juvie, that kind of stuff is really about status. There are the crappy wing paddles that anyone can use, and then there are the ones that you can buy with your canteen spend. If you own your own paddle, that’s cool. There are two issued shoes, and if you get the shit ones it’s the worst thing in your life that you’ve got these shit shoes. If you have a dope hat – the one part of your outfit that’s not issued – things are looking up. Lots of toiletries, extra uniforms – in there, the most basic thing that would never have any meaning to you or I has so much weight.”

“I’ve just recently left the juvenile detention system because I’m fed up with how it prioritises security over rehabilitation … It’s not working. Recidivism – where a kid comes back in and out – is huge. I can’t remember the exact figure but it’s about 60%. Probably more. I think it’s more. Maybe check that out if you’re going to put it in.” (Editor’s note: Story checks out. Australian Institute of Criminology says so.)

“If there’s one thing I wish people knew more about it’s that these kids need nurturing to become healthy citizens rather than angry ones, which is unfortunately what the current system does to a lot of them. And maybe I get that more than most because I was a bit of a crazy kid myself. My mum was at uni during the day and delivering pizzas at night, and without her to keep an eye on me I went a bit wild. I had my first youth worker when I was twelve, and a few more over the years after that. When I was eighteen, I went through an experience where my best friend passed away. That was it for me – I got a ticket out of the country and worked in New York for a few years. When I came back I went to uni and got qualified as a youth worker.”

“THERE ARE TWO ISSUED SHOES, AND IF YOU GET THE SHIT ONES IT’S THE WORST THING IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU’VE GOT THESE SHIT SHOES. IF YOU HAVE A DOPE HAT – THE ONE PART OF YOUR OUTFIT THAT’S NOT ISSUED – THINGS ARE LOOKING UP.”

“I’m now in a mentoring role and the fit is better, though not without its struggles. We get to see a kid when they’re in crisis stage, which means you have to celebrate the small wins. Success is that they hit the weed instead of meth, or go to school one day a week instead of no days a week. But every now and then I’ll see one of them some years down the track and they’ll say, “Miss, I’m doing so good now!” You can guess how nice that feels.”

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