A reformed bank robber has revealed how he grew up in chaos on Redfern’s ‘The Block’ and spent several years in prison before turning his life around as a leadership coach.
Jeffrey Morgan was born and raised in Australia’s oldest Indigenous urban settlement, which was set up by squatters who became the Aboriginal Housing Company in 1973.
The Block offered homes in the inner-Sydney suburb to indigenous tenants who struggled to find properties because of racist discrimination.
However, by the time Mr Morgan was being raised in Eveleigh Street in the 1980s, those idealistic days were a distant memory.
The Block would eventually became the site of the Redfern Riot in 2004, when 17-year-old Indigenous boy TJ Hickey died while being followed by police.
Mr Morgan says he’s lifted the lid on his experiences growing up in the area to encourage young kids to live a better life.
‘Imagine 13 kids in a house, graffiti everywhere and smashed windows. Friday afternoon you get home from school and you go to the fridge to eat something and there’s no food,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘Your parents have been paid but they’ve spent it all on drugs and alcohol and the party’s already started.
‘There are 30 people in your house you don’t even know the majority of them. You’re trying to get to sleep and people are coming and waking you up. It was just destruction and dysfunction.
‘Alcohol violence was just a normal part of the way we grew up. It was about survival during those periods. I would get physically abused by my father constantly for a long period of time, from probably the age of six to about 12.
‘I decided to run away from home and I jumped out of the window and started living on the streets.
‘We were running riot, throwing bricks at police cars, burning police cars. It was a badge of honour to go to a boys’ home or to jail.’
Aboriginal man Jeffrey Morgan, 50 (pictured is his crew in the 1980s), was born in The Block, a social housing unit in inner city Sydney
Mr Morgan fled home at 12 and ended up spending 18 years in and out of high security prisons (pictured in Parklea Prison in 1991)
Mr Morgan said Redfern turned into a no-go area for other people in Sydney.
‘No taxi drivers would drop us back from the city. We would have to get out way before and walk, that’s how bad it was.
‘Cop cars wouldn’t even drive down because people would smash them up. It was just common practice and normal behaviour.’
After leaving home, Mr Morgan grew up on the streets, carrying out petty crimes just to survive.
As he got older, he became more involved in crime and said that he, and others like him, had been let down by their parents.
‘From 12 years of age, you’ve got a young kid out on the streets, just doing his best,’ he said.
‘I didn’t trust anyone. My parents had led me down. The people that were meant to love me most didn’t, so I was out there seeking love. The only love I got was from the same people who were in the same situation on the streets.
Mr Morgan was raised on Eveleigh Street, at the heart of the block (pictured in the 1980s), which later became the site of the Redfern Riot in 2004
Andrew Johnson shoots up with help from a friend in Redfern’s Caroline Lane in January 1999, in an image which would shock the nation and make headlines around the world
Aboriginal people on the street in the controversial housing area known as ‘The Block’, in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern
‘By the time I was 16, crime was entrenched in me as a normal habit. It was the only path open to us for survival.’
Survival was the main motivation for Mr Morgan during his criminal days, he added, and said he even followed a ‘twisted’ code.
‘We had this weird, twisted mentality that everything we did was basically for survival. I just didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. That was my business and I was surviving,’ he explained.
‘My last bank robbery, I was sledgehammering a bank vault and I ran out and there was a kid crying with his mother. I told him it’d be okay because I still had this underlying urge to be good.
‘I went through a ram raid period, I stole luxury cars. We had this group that were well known by the media doing bank robberies and snatching money off counters.
‘But I never broke into a house. I never snatched a handbag.’
Mr Morgan also revealed how he and other children living a life of crime ‘upskilled’ through stints in juvenile detention centres.
‘All you did was sit in the yard without any real potential to rehabilitate yourself.
‘Five years you’re sitting there having a conversation about what you do. How do you do it? How do you turn the alarm off? You’re just upskilling yourself and that’s the saddest thing. They’re just in survival mode.’
By 16, Mr Morgan said he started to realise he didn’t like what he was doing.
It wasn’t until his last stint in jail, 20 year ago, that he truly made a change.
‘I just finished a month trial down in Melbourne,’ he explained.
‘I thought I was going really well up until the last moment and then I got found guilty.
‘I think I had a realisation that my life in that world was over. I asked myself, “do you want to die in jail?”.
Three people prepare drugs in The Block at Redfern in this photo from 2004
Survival was the main motivation for Mr Morgan during his criminal days, he added, and said he even followed a ‘twisted’ code
A modern photo of ‘The Block’, with Mr Morgan posing alongside it in Redfern
‘I realised, if I wanted to die then I might as well just do it now. I broke down and I made the decision to have another crack at life.’
He served 18 years in various high-security prisons.
‘Prison strips you back,’ he said.
‘I got offered the opportunity to study a university degree, I became an Indigenous delegate in prison and started using my skills to make a better environment for everyone, and I began believing in myself.
‘As an Indigenous kid growing up on struggle street, I was surrounded by bad habits, unhealthy diets, and poor mental health. Those behaviours and habits became deeply entrenched and it wasn’t until I took responsibility and started focusing on the solution that my life started to change. I am living proof that your attitude really does determine your altitude.’
Mr Morgan went on to apply for several courses while in jail and began doing assessments and acquiring skills.
Since leaving prison around 13 years ago, he has started a company that carries out leadership programmes in several cities around the world.
He is now launching a new online lifestyle program called Cut the Bullshit, which he says will help people ‘reset’ their lives.
Discussing his motivation to help kids, Mr Morgan said: ‘When a young kid steals a car or burns a car, we want to sit down as a whole community, bring the parents into the conversation and say “Son, why are you feeling this way?”
‘We started what we call the draw the line in the sand project. We want to tell kids, “hey, look, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life, as long as you draw a line in the sand today and say I’m willing to be better at the next opportunity”.
‘That’s basically how we’re operating at the moment and it means we have been able to create a roadmap for that person’s life. It gives the kids some structure, some clarity around a vision as to what they want to achieve within their life.
Mr Morgan is now launching a new online lifestyle program called Cut the Bullshit, which he says will help people ‘reset’ their lives
Mr Morgan went on to apply for several courses while in jail and began doing assessments and acquiring skills
‘These programmes have allowed people to step into careers opportunities that they’ve never seen before. If a younger kid gets a job it creates a belief within the community that you can get a job too.’
Mr Morgan said he’s proud of what he’s achieved, considering his destructive start to life in Redfern.
‘We just finished a leadership programmes over in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.
‘We want to help that young 12 year old kid that slept under bridges on cold nights having rats crawl over them. Literally cockroaches in your pants probably trying to get warm. It’s just powerful to be able to go through that transition. We help any individual in any environment. I’m just proud coming from what Redfern was like.
‘You don’t have to go to jail to change or want to change from a destructive environment. I think the greatest thing anybody can be or the greatest job anyone could have is just to be themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not something that most people do.
It is now 20 years since Mr Morgan was last arrested and his life is completely different to how it was.
‘I turned 50 this year,’ he said. ‘It’s actually 20 years since I was last arrested on Friday. I came out 13 years ago now and my first major contract to help people was at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence.
‘The contract I signed was at a primary school that turned out to be my old one. I was in the same classroom I had been in as a kid and it was a full 360.
‘It reminded me of having two hours sleep every night with music pumping. People blowing smoke and doing drugs. I really got emotional to remember how far I’d come.
‘I’m an open book. I am happy to be vulnerable and honest about anything and everything to help people grow into better humans. If we can help one person, then that’s a good thing.’