Tasmania’s Commission of Inquiry has heard shocking and horrific evidence about a culture of violence and sexual abuse at the state’s only youth detention facility, with one expert saying he would “raze Ashley to the ground” if he could.
Counsel assisting the commission Rachel Ellyard warned the evidence presented about the Ashley Youth Detention Center would be “confronting and distressing” — and the first accounts of experts, staff members and former detainees proved to be just that.
Former detainee Warren* told the commission he was forced to perform sexual acts on guards to receive his medication, while another former detainee, Simon*, said the physical abuse and isolation he experienced at the facility had him begging to be sent to an adult jail instead.
As confronting as these accounts were, Ms Ellyard said multiple governments had heard similar accounts, having received report after report full of complaints about the facility before a decision was made to close it last year.
So, what’s next for this scandal-plagued facility, and what will replace it?
What exactly is Ashley?
The Ashley Youth Detention Center opened as the Ashley Home for Boys in 1922, with the idea to reform young offenders by putting them to work on the farm.
Ms Ellyard told the commission that the culture of abuse began back then, with multiple former details alleging they were subject to physical and sexual abuse.
“It’s clear … that practices in the former Ashley Boys Home were punitive and vile, violent,” she said.
In 2000, it was renamed the Ashley Youth Detention Center and began incarcerating boys and girls aged between 10 and 18.
But while the name was new, Ms Ellyard said it inherited lots of staff from the former Ashley Boys Home, as well as its culture.
The current Ashley facility has 51 beds across four units but has an average number of details about one-fifth of that.
What’s happening to it?
Former premier Peter Gutwein announced the facility would close within three years last September, after mounting public pressure to take action.
He said it would be replaced by two smaller youth detention facilities with therapeutic models of care, one in the state’s south and another in the north.
But there are still lots of unknowns, including exactly where those facilities will be based, what a therapeutic model looks like and how the government will attract the staff to implement it.
And of course, there’s no official closure date for Ashley.
For criminologist Rob White, who interviewed dozens of staff at the detention center a decade ago, that can’t come soon enough.
“I would raze Ashley to the ground. I would destroy the physical infrastructure tomorrow,” he said.
“We don’t have three years of transition — I would get rid of it immediately.”
What will happen to the Ashley site when the facility closes?
The site has been identified as the preferred option for an adult prison in the state’s north, after the government ditched a plan to build it in Westbury.
The government has begun “due diligence” on that plan, including continuing consultation with nearby landowners, but there’s no time frame around when that would occur.
But the plan to transform Ashley into an adult prison terrifies Simon*, who said people who were previously detained there would be flooded with terrible memories.
“If I went back there right now, I’m telling you right now I would have real bad memories. I wouldn’t be myself,” he said.
What does a therapeutic model look like?
Youth justice experts Anthony McGinness and Janise Mitchell told the commission that a punitive model did not work and Ashley had essentially become a pipeline to Risdon Prison.
They said youth justice ideally needed to have a therapeutic and trauma-informed approach, as well as staff in the right numbers and with the relevant expertise to deliver it.
“We’ve got to understand that these are first and foremost kids and that adults have let them down, systems have let them down, and they are where they are because they’ve done the best they can to survive the hand that they’ has been dealt with by life to date,” Ms Mitchell said.
“Kids in the main are doing the best they can with what they’ve got to work with and they’re just in the business, a lot of them, of surviving — and we need to understand that and look at the meaning of what this behavior is telling us.”
Children and Youth Minister Roger Jaensch said the Tasmanian government would release its “Youth Justice Blueprint” in coming weeks, which would “ensure the state has the right settings and services to promote early intervention, diversion and therapeutic responses”.
He said that “blueprint”, alongside a government decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility, would “truly ensure” youth detention was a last resort.
The hearings into Ashley finish next Friday.