Brian says he first became acquainted with the McCaffrey Youth Centre when he was about 21. 'I had a friend that I'd known from teenage years and we always used to take drugs together and stuff. My friend was in a bit of trouble and he was in this place. He told me about it. I've lived in the area and knew about the Centre but I didn't know what it was doing. I saw the place as somewhere for me to get accommodation — that's what I really wanted. I'd been struggling with that for years. When I was 15 or 16 I got kicked out so I just had to live by my own means. That was brought on by the fact that my mother never really coped while I was growing up as a kid. My dad died when I was seven and she had a nervous breakdown and gambling sort of followed and that kind of stuff. My sister got murdered when I was about 15. She had just turned 18. And that's when my life sort of rolled out of control, on the drugs, you know what I mean.
'I have a brother who's got disabilities. My mum is still alive; I see her but she lives in (another capital city). I don't have much to do with her. I pretty much just learned to get by on my own two feet. But I did have good support from my dad's family. They live in this area as well. So that turned out good because I could eventually get set-up with the McCaffrey Centre and my family was not too far away. At times I lived with my relatives on dad's side. I changed school a lot when I was growing up; I'd spend maybe two years in one school then I'd leave.' Brian lists schools that he attended in three states additional to his home one and he finished in year eight. 'I got expelled — I was all over the joint. I went to gaol when I was about 17 and started in youth detention and then I worked my way up from there until about 22. I went in and out several times. My life was shit at that stage; I had nothing and not much to look forward to. I didn't know where my life was going. It was reckless. I thought at times that I might die. The stuff I was doing; high speed chases. I had no real regard for life at that stage. That's a common feeling with criminals; like they're dangerous mate ... they've got nothing to live for.
'It's incredible how much things have improved in more recent times. Like now, everything I've worked for I won't want to jeopardise that for something stupid. I've got a lot to live for. I have a partner; I've just finished my apprenticeship in cabinet making. It took five years rather than four because I broke my wrist last year and had about nine months off.' Brian says that he is conscious of what an achievement his trade qualification is after the start he had in life. 'Now I've been in the one spot for a long time; I don't really have a lot of friends, I've never been one to have a lot of friends. I've sort of been on my own but the friends that I have belong to cricket clubs and footy clubs that I've joined, and the gym as well. I don't really go out with these people much to drink and stuff like that or go to their houses but I like socialising with them when I'm at these places. In the past I had acquaintances not friends; I associated with people that you couldn't trust.'
Asked if there was an obvious turning point in his life Brian says he thinks that it was when he gave away drugs 'and I no longer had a dependency. That heroin stuff wrecked me. It led me to go in and out of gaol. You have to (engage in crime) to support your habit. I was forced off it in the 'slot.' They caught me selling the stuff and they don't take too well to that.' Brian revises his statement about a turning point expressing the view that his giving drugs away was a slower process although after leaving a drug treatment prison he was determined to give drugs away. 'They had programs that were pretty good because they set you in a routine — you had to get this (a project) in by a certain time. It wasn't that the program was educational; but getting something out of it came down to the person himself. I knew that if I got a job, had somewhere to live and things like that it would help me because in the past I had had success with work. '
What influences helped him to sustain his good intentions? He says that the McCaffrey Centre has been important. 'When I got out they offered me work and I did the outdoor development here. I helped to turn a jungle into the paved area it is now. They really looked after me, mate. They supported me through that first tough three to six months and I stayed reasonably clean. My drug habit changed — from liking 'downers' to liking 'uppers', and as you know a lot of people in the community today are using ecstasy, speed and cocaine. I had a really good relationship with the staff here, it grew over time. There were times here when I was like lying on a table pretty much dead, mate. These people never turned their back on me. Probably the major reason why I haven't gone back to prison is giving away the 'bennies' because every time I used to take them that was it. I tell my cousin who has recently been in prison 'just stay off the pills mate.' Those things just put people in gaol.'
In describing how the staff of the Centre had made such a difference, Brian says that they didn't actually pay him cash during his construction work. 'I might have just gone out and bought drugs. They gave me food and stuff that I really needed to buy; it was deliberate because they know that if they give people money they can misuse it. It didn't annoy me because I knew it would help me. When I had my Centrelink payment I could use that for other things. I knew that they meant well and that they could see that I really wanted to have a go. They knew how I used to be in the past. I think they could see that I had changed, that I had a different look about me. They just bent their backs to try and help me.
'I worked here for about four months and then one of the staff had a mate who was in a cabinet-making firm. He could see that I was a hard worker and introduced me to his friend who offered me an apprenticeship. I was a bit wary, you know, an apprenticeship for four years; how was I going to commit? I hadn't been out of gaol for more than a few months for over six years. That was a demoralising thought but I wasn't going to let it get me down. I had to be strong, mate. I was determined to give it a go, to challenge it.
It sort of just fell into place a lot, too. I didn't really make big plans for it; I didn't think when I started that I would be this or that in six months. But then they got me to set goals, mainly short-term stuff — like listing things that I needed to buy'. Referring to a journal that he had with him, Brian said, 'I have some of them here. Mary (staff member) thought it might help to express myself better by writing things down. Here's some goals from a fair while ago: I wanted to buy a car, I wanted to get my licence (a volunteer gave me driving lessons), start to save money — you can't keep spending all of your money on partying; finish my first year at school (Technical College); give up smoking; keep going to the gym (the idea being to increase my confidence); keep seeing my family. My confidence grew immensely, and that's what helped me too. When you're feeling down and not confident, you think the world's against you ...it's not very nice like that and you finish up turning on the world. (Continuing with the list) keep away from crime; set up my house; try and keep making friends with good people; try to meet a nice girl, which I've done now. The heading for all this was 'goals for the year 'and it was around 2006 but I'd been in that routine of setting goals for some time. I went back from time to time and said 'Yeah, I've done this or maybe I still need to try and do that. I tried to do that off my own bat.
'Here's some from two years ago. It involved going back and looking at the earlier ones, some of which could be 'ticked off.' I'd finished my apprenticeship by this time (2008) — that had been my main goal for four years, it gave me a lift each year to see that I was meeting the requirements, It gave me a sense of achievement especially with something like cabinet making — you make something real beautiful, it gives you a good feeling. Among the other goals I had 'try and make the footy trip', picking up a sport that I HAD been keen on as a teenager. Cricket and football put me in touch with other people. It's been really good for me to have the club there. I drink rarely because if I have one I just want to keep going. I've got 'give up the smokes' there, 'get my licence back,' and because I had a car accident I've got 'pay off the insurance company.' I had to pay compensation and fines.
'The friends I've got today are a lot more like people that go to the gym, and people at the footy and cricket clubs and most of them are 'straighties' and also neighbours, like I don't really have many friends.' Asked about what lies ahead Brian said that at present he is trying to start a family. There is a house and land package outside of the city that he has in his sights and 'things are looking right up for me. I have the apprenticeship behind me and now I need to try and set these major goals in place... a family, the house and things like that. We got a cat last year just to have that responsibility for looking after something and now I think we're ready to start to try and have a family, which I really want to do. I never had the chance before, I was always out of place.
'The wish to have a family comes partly because my dad died when I was young, I want to make the wrongs of what I went through right. Not only that but to keep the name going. It's unbelievable that my life has come to that point. I'm thinking about doing a course to become a personal trainer and do work like that on the side as well. I've looked into it and it's a matter of saving the money for it. The Centre here helped me with some of the fees earlier on with the apprenticeship and I received a Federal Government grant for the tool allowance. It would be a lot harder without that help. For me to get that sort of money would be very hard.'
Looking back on his own youthful encounters with juvenile and then adult corrections, Brian says that young offenders need to discover something personally rewarding to which they can apply themselves and which makes them feel good about their life. In his case, he says, things happened that gave him something to look forward to, advances that he would not wish to squander. His 'Nan' (father's mother) had also been an important source of support. 'She passed away a couple of years ago but by that time I was going really well. She was always so proud of me and would stick her neck out for me — even when I was on the drugs and everything and no one wanted to know me, she always stuck by me. She believed in me. For me to go back and change my life was a way of giving something good back to her. She put-in for me. I used to visit her all the time. If there was any time that I needed a feed or something like that her door was always open. Your family is different from a social service — they are people, your family is family.'
Asked if there was anyone else today who provided similar support and proof of his value as a person, Brian named a female member of staff of the McCaffrey Centre. The constancy of her support has been vital. When the centre worker joined our conversation she said that Brian had always been a keen worker. She believes that when he was last released from prison he was motivated to make some key life changes. Initially he sought help with gaining accommodation but the Centre team believed that he needed:
Drug and alcohol support,Healthy, crime-avoiding recreation, Increased self-esteem and confidence (he would ask 'Why are people looking at me, is it because they know that I've been in prison?'), Gaining the ability to relate comfortably and purposefully with the Centre's workers.
Brian says that along the way, drug counsellors have offered sincere help. He also mentioned a friend of his late Nan, an older man who is looked up to in the community and who has continued her tradition of providing him with friendship and a meal.
At an earlier stage of his life Brian says that he was fostered out to the parents of one of his best mates between the ages of ten and 13. 'They had a very structured, settled way of life. They taught me a lot: there was that goodness in me that was the result of their teaching. They were giving me the message that I might have been in strife but there was goodness in me. There were times though when the badness led me astray, even when I was with them. ' He adds 'Now it's important to concentrate on the future rather than dwelling on the past. I think I will be a loving and caring parent. I'm active too and that will help. I've got a smart partner also and she will be able to help educate our children. She has confidence in me and our relationship is based on liking, trust and mutual respect. This is backed by the security of my work and the public housing accommodation obtained with the help of the McCaffrey Centre'.
Brian pictures himself as having lived at the absolute margins of society. In his youth he has experienced times when 'I was like lying on a table pretty much dead...My life was shit at that stage; I had nothing and not much to look forward to. I didn't know where my life was going. It was reckless... I had no real regard for life at that stage. That's a common feeling with criminals; like they're dangerous mate... they've got nothing to live for.' Noteworthy is the fact that while he was feeling this way, significant others in his life continued to remain committed to his wellbeing and entertained hopes for his future. His Nan was one such person: 'she always stuck by me. She believed in me.' Another influential was the McCaffrey Centre staff member who not only had faith in Brian's good intentions but helped him to plan in detail the path that would consolidate his moves towards greater social inclusion.
That formulation of goals needed an openness to consider and act upon them and trust in the integrity and methods of the McCaffrey Centre generally. There appears to have been a combination of proximate and more distant factors inclining Brian to that disposition.
Tony Vinson is Emeritus Professor at UNSW and Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney. His extensive experience researching social disadvantage culminated in the study Dropping Off the Edge in 2007 and, now, Moving From the Edge.