Content Warning: This article discusses suicide
Mervyn Eades is well known as the former chair of the First Nations Death in Custody Watch Committee, but few know of the trauma that led him into his work.
The Menang/Wilaman man from the Noongar nation was first incarcerated for the first time at age 13, and over the next 20 years he spent time in and out of the prison system.
“I seen that gap in the prison system that no one gets trained up for any life experiences on the outside,” Mr Eades told NITV News.
“You don’t come out any better than when you’ve gone in.”
In 2002, Mr Eades left prison for the last time. But six months later, his brother committed suicide while in custody. It was his brother’s death in custody that motivated him to do more and help others in need.
“I don’t want to see any other brothers and sisters be lost in the system and losing their lives, it’s just a waste of life this prison system and we need to create other pathways,” Mr Eades said.
In 2014, Mr Eades started his Perth-based business Ngalla Maya which provides training, education, mentoring, and skill development for the Indigenous community.
“My business creates opportunities for brothers and sisters coming out of the prison system who have been institutionalised and lost in the system,” Mr Eades said.
“What I do is I try and make all that change by breaking the cycle of recidivism and reoffending behaviour by getting the boys and girls into employment opportunities,” he said.
A 2014 report by the West Australian Independent Inspector of Custodial Services stated that from 2004 to 2014, on average 40 to 45 per cent of people have returned to prison within two years of being released.
The report found that numerous factors affect the likelihood of a person returning to prison, including growing insight and maturity, employment, improved mental health, drug rehabilitation, or ‘finding’ religion or love.
Aboriginal prisoners were more likely to re-offend, with young Aboriginal prisons at a higher risk.
Ngalla Maya provides training to allow participants to gain certificates and tickets in a variety of qualifications in order to get them into specific industries. The organisation started off with no funding but in 2017 the federal government granted them outcome-based funding.
Ngalla Maya’s ‘Prison to Community Reintegration’ program has helped about 300 people, including men, women and children.
One of those men is 31-year-old father of two Korey Penny.
Mr Penny, also a Menang man from the Noongar Nation, spent three years in prison for drug offences. He said his time behind bars was ‘boring’ and ‘hard’.
“My life was pretty bad, I was in trouble every day just running around and running amuck,” he told NITV News.
After he was released from prison, Korey met Mervyn through his mum and asked for help.
“After jail, I was straightened out a little bit and then Merv finished it off and told me I had to work and he guided me with through to be a better person,” Mr Penny said.
“Mervyn is like another father to me, he helps me out every day, even after the mentoring, he helps me out with anything,” he said.
Currently, Korey works as a supervisor with contractor Salini Impregilo on the $1.86 billion Forrestfield-Airport Link. He is one of six people in the whole country who can drive the $20 million tunnel-boring machine.
“This company gives me responsibility, Merv helped me get to this company and this company gave me a fair go and having responsibility on the DPM,” Korey said.
The young father said he will never go back to jail and wants to continue to make his kids proud.
“My kids, they really look up to me and stuff, so now it's more like being a role model for my son and my daughter, and it makes me happy as well seeing that.
But Ngalla Maya doesn’t just help men coming out of prison.
Yamatji man Chris Ugle had been suffering from drug addiction. He was looking at three to fours years in jail and was in and out of court when he reached out to Mervyn for help.
“I was bad on meth at the time, and that’s how I did the crime as well, I was strung out on meth, I was doing meth every day and I was going off the rails,” he told NITV News.
“I reached out to Merv and he took the time to get to know me and he got me on the program,” he said.
Mr Ugle said being part of Ngalla Maya helped him get on the straight and narrow. He was given a suspended sentence.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I never walked through these doors at Ngalla Maya. I would have been in jail,” Mr Ugle said.
“I would have been strung out on meth and still doing crimes, I could have ended up dead, anything could have happened,” he said.
Mr Ugle said he has been clean for two years and is now employed full time. He’s reconnected with his family who he lost touch with during his addiction days, and he is now a devoted dad to his young son.
“I never pictured myself having a family of my own, so it did change my life a lot, it’s hard to explain unless you’re a father,” Mr Ugle said.
“I think Mervyn is changing lives, he’s changing lives and that’s all that matters,” he said.
Ngalla Maya is expanding into the Goldfields and working with Traditional Owners to help them get into the growing goldmine industry.
For Mervyn he wants the prison system to step up.
“My hope for the future is for our people not to go to prison and for a lot of these prisons to start delivering successful training and opportunities for brothers and sisters in the prison system, so they don’t have to go back to prison,” he said.
“My biggest hope is for all the prisons to close down.”
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe.