Australia's Prison Drug Problem Is Worse Than Corrections Will Ever Admit
Keenan (bottom left) during his incarceration. Image supplied

Australia's Prison Drug Problem Is Worse Than Corrections Will Ever Admit

Keenan Mundine was 14 when he first went into juvenile detention. By 16 he was addicted to heroin.

This piece is a collaboration with the Boiling Frog. You can read its longform profile of Keenan and his drug reform work here. Find the rest of VICE's new drug law series High Season here.

“Drugs in jail is like a Cold War,” says Keenan Mundine. “Everyone knows there are drugs in there. Everyone refuses to admit it.” And Keenan would know. Now 30, he’s spent 10 of his birthdays behind bars—first in juvenile detention and then in adult prison. Drugs were a big part of this time in his life, both in the outside world and on the inside.


Keenan was first sent down to juvenile detention when he was 14 for stealing a laptop from a car. Less than a year later, he started lacing his joints with heroin. By 16, he’d started injecting. “It actually shocked me, the copious amounts of drugs in there,” he says of his early days in jail.

At 24 years old, Keenan was finally accepted into a drug rehabilitation program and got clean. He got his first legal pay cheque from working in a youth centre in Sydney, became an ambassador for Just Reinvest NSW, and last year founded the Inside Out Aboriginal Justice Consultancy. VICE talked to Keenan about the problem of drugs in Australian prisons, which he says is worse than officials will ever admit.

“[Corrective Services] are paid to rehabilitate prisoners and say you can’t bring drugs in and so on,” he says, “but they’re also getting paid billions to lock us up. They have more resources than any prisoner in there.”

Young Keenan. Image supplied

VICE: Keenan, you cycled in and out of prison for 10 years. Did you see drugs as a serious issue in that time?
Keenan Mundine: Most of the violence I witnessed in men’s jails was over drugs. And drug debts. Not just little debts, I’m talking $5,000 worth of drugs, in jail. Believe it or not, I first came across amphetamines in jail. It wasn’t the drug of choice in my community. My community was more into alcohol, weed, and heroin. One of the older boys approached me [in juvenile detention] and said, “This is ice, have you had ice before?” I said, “No.” He said, “Be careful because you won’t be able to sleep on it and some people lose their minds on it. They don’t come out of it.” So, I had ice. Then he said, “If you can’t sleep just take two of these. These are xannies [Xanax].” I knew what Xanax was because it was frowned upon in my community. People used to take xannies and wouldn’t remember what they had done.


I know people serving three or four life sentences for committing murders that they did while under the influence, for no more than $200. One guy I was in jail with killed his best mate. They were drinking together and took xannies. His mate drank the last bit of alcohol and they got into an argument. He jumped over and stabbed his mate 30 times. He had lived with that guy for 13 years, and he killed him. All over a fucking Jim Beam.

You’re talking about people racking up big debts on the inside. Is that because drugs cost more in prison?
In jail, a little bit goes a long way. The street value of a $50 point of ice goes up five times in a maximum security jail. You can sell it for $250. In minimum security, it might be about $100—so you’re doubling your money. For dealers, it’s lucrative. Dealers could solely invest in prisons and they would be multimillionaires. I met a guy selling drugs to get money, and he told me he could sell a gram of marijuana for $100. One gram. That’s expensive. If he wanted to spend more time on it, I could break that gram of marijuana down and make more money by selling it in smaller portions.

It seems like it was pretty easy to get drugs in jail.
Just as easy as it is on the street. It actually shocked me, the copious amounts of drugs in there. If you know the right people—and you’ve got money—you can get whatever you want. If you grew up on the streets you can see the mannerisms and the way a person carries himself. You know: if they’re an alcoholic, if they’re into heavier drugs, if they smoke weed. And you know how to approach them. It’s exactly the same in jail. There are two ways to get drugs. You can buy them by bartering with what you’ve got—money or favours within jail. Or, visitors can bring them in from outside.


How do visitors get drugs in?
The same way that you’d bring drugs into a festival or transport drugs overseas. Wrap them up, balloon them up, de-scent them. No dogs can smell them. No indications or nothing. You can hold it in your hand, put it in your bra, put it in your baby. Do whatever you need to do. In minimum security jails, people have access to a compound. People can walk out to the parking lot and talk to a visitor. So, it’s pretty easy.

A drone was recently caught on camera flying drugs into a NSW prison. Did you ever see anyone go to those lengths?
I think there are a lot of pipe dreams out there, but the truth is, prisoners don’t have much money. Prisoners don’t have resources like that. I guarantee if they had more money and resources, you’d hear about a lot more funny shit. But they just don’t have the money for it.

I heard a story about someone just throwing a tennis ball stuffed with drugs over the fence of a prison in Sydney.
Well, when I was in Parramatta jail they had this big yard and a quadrangle, like high school. The people who knew drugs were coming in would pay some boys to distract the guards and go and play football. They’d tell other boys to go play basketball, others to go play tennis and some to play squash. So, there’d be 25 balls being thrown around the quadrangle all at once. They knew which ball we were looking for. But the officers didn’t.

Do you think jail helps rehabilitate people?
There might be a guy in jail because he used to steal cars for joyriding. Now he’s in jail, and talking to a bloke who buys stolen cars. There are people in jail doing drugs, selling drugs, expanding their criminal horizons. I’ve seen people in jail lose their mind on ecstasy and ice and GHB. Lots of people probably won’t like what I’m saying here, but I need to be honest. Kids need to know what I faced. How real it was. And who I impacted on the way. I want to wake the next generation of young kids up and show them, this is not a way to live.


Keenan today. Image by Jason McCormack

If Corrective Services have the resources to keep drugs out of prison, why do you think they don’t do it?
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to keep drugs out of jails, and I know that Corrective Services take the issue very seriously. However, I do think the ongoing nature of the problem is related to pride and the public image that Corrective Services needs to uphold. If prison operators wanted to be serious about getting drugs out of prisons and keeping them clean, they would have to admit that there is a huge problem with drugs in jails. It is a tough thing to come out and say, “We’ve got a massive problem with drug trafficking and drug use in our jails.” It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. Getting the prisons clean would mean Corrective Services would need to open up their operating procedures to scrutiny and public humiliation. At the moment, they’re trying to keep it in house and hush up the issue. The only media you see about drugs in jail is when there is a big raid or seizure of drugs. It’s all positive news for Corrective Services. No one talks about how the drugs got there in the first place. We know bloodborn viruses like Hepatitis C are rampant in prison, but the media report that it’s spread via unprotected sex or tattooing or inmates fighting. They don’t want to mention that the most likely cause would be sharing needles after injecting drugs.

Imagine a prison without drugs. Do you think it could rehabilitate people?
Of course it could. But, without seeing it in action, how will we ever know? The problem would be that prisons currently don’t offer enough educational or rehabilitation programs for inmates. You can’t expect a drug addict to go cold turkey and remain sober just by throwing him into a cell for a year. Why not put him into a rehabilitation program while he’s in prison, and use that time to help him recover? The other thing is, once you take drugs out of the equation, former addicts are going to have a lot of time on their hands. They’ll have an extra nine or 10 hours a day to keep occupied. So, you need to offer them education and skills and creative outlets. You can’t lock someone in a cage for two years and expect them to come out a new person. It would be good to see Corrective Services move away from what they have always done and try something new and innovative. There’s no quick fix in this situation. If you come at it with that mindset—thinking budgets and KPIs and overheads—you’re doomed from the beginning.