Allegations of cover-ups, staff frustration and management inaction at Ashley youth prison, abuse inquiry hears

Allegations of cover-ups, staff frustration and management inaction at Ashley youth prison, abuse inquiry hears

Posted updated 
A cluster of buildings and fencing in a green countryside seen from the air.
Ashley staff have alleged "verbal abuse … being physically assaulted" while working at the prison, the commission heard.()

A public servant tasked to review serious incidents at Tasmania's youth detention centre says her attempts at trying to get the government to take it seriously were like "banging her head against a brick wall".

Warning: Readers may find the details of this story distressing.

Key points:

  • More evidence has been heard at the commission of inquiry investigating abuse at the prison
  • One employee alleged prison staff were told to "change their reports or shred originals"
  • Another employee said she had "never felt so helpless in my life" and that "there was nothing I could do to reduce the risk" to young detainees
Veronica Burton, who worked at the Department of Communities as an independent reviewer for the Serious Event Review Team (SERT) between 2018 and 2020, has given evidence at Tasmania's Commission of Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings.

She conducted four separate reviews of incidents at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre (AYDC) in that time and while the incidents were different, the recommendations were the same.

"It was incredibly frustrating," she told the commission on Monday.

"I was identifying similar or identical issues every time, making the same findings, making the same recommendations and sending them to where they were supposed to go for action and then I'd go back and there'd be the same issues."

Ms Burton told the commission she also sent memos to director of custodial youth justice Pamela Honan about separate issues raised by staff that didn't fit within the scope of her reviews but failed to receive a response.

"I felt just so frustrated that I could see the risk and I couldn't do anything about it," Ms Burton said.

She told the commission that the manager at Ashley, Patrick Ryan, would try to "control" everything, giving her his opinion on what he thought had happened and what the issues were.

"He controlled who I spoke to at the centre and where I went. I was completely at the mercy of Mr Ryan in that regard," she said.

Staff told her they were being bullied when they expressed opinions that differed from the core group of managers and staff, which included Mr Ryan and Lester*, another member of the management team.

"[Staff] described incidents of verbal abuse, being yelled at, being physically assaulted on a couple of occasions by being pushed, prevented from leaving a room or being spoken over the top of when they tried to express concerns about decisions that were being made," she told the commission.

She said there was a "defensiveness" and she was almost never able to speak to the youth detainees or get information about their pasts.

"Staff were having reports that they were writing changed or being told to change their reports or shred originals," she said.

She said they were also instructed to change the minutes of meetings and said documents were "often missing or couldn't be found when I requested them". 

On top of that, she said in her statement, she struggled to get the department to take things seriously.

"Trying to get the Department of Communities to understand the issues at AYDC was like banging my head against a brick wall. I felt like no one wanted to hear about the issues or do anything about them," she said.

SERT was dissolved in 2020 without any warning.

"It's my opinion that the decision to dissolve SERT was made because of the issues that we were raising because we were causing trouble and trying to draw attention to issues," she told the commission.

"There was a comment from one of the directors, not Ms [Pam] Honan, that we shouldn't be airing our dirty laundry in public."

'Provocative' detainee was just trying to keep ill-fitting pants up, former employee says

Alysha is a former employee at Ashley Youth Detention Centre. Surname withheld.
Alysha says she flipped through another worker's reports of various complaints against staff.(Supplied: Gavin Johns)

Ms Burton's comments and observations about Ashley were echoed by Alysha, a former clinical practice consultant at the centre. 

"There was a gap in knowledge about what our role was … it was not our role to punish children, it was our role to support them," she told the commission.

Alysha told the commission about a young girl who she said was targeted by male inmates and staff who called her a "slut" for pulling her pants up high and showing a "camel toe" — when in fact the girl had lost weight and was attempting to keep her pants on.

"I was asked by one of the male operations coordinators to go and remove some of the Ashley-issued clothing and tell her to stop dressing provocatively," Alysha told the commission.

She refused, but another female worker removed her clothing and it was replaced with clothes that wouldn't "rile up the boys".

Alysha said a fellow worker told her about a number of Ashley staff who had historical abuse allegations against them.

"He explained that things were very broken and very wrong. He talked about Lester, particularly, and went on to talk about other long-standing members of staff who'd been 'sex offenders' and were still on-site," she said.

"He said all he could do essentially was keep these files … which were various emails, complaints and reports that he'd printed off over so many years."

The worker told the commission he did not keep any reports, but Alysha said she saw and "flicked through" them.

The commission also heard more about Lester.

Alysha was told by another worker, Ira*, that years earlier he had seen a crying naked child on all fours in an isolation room — with Lester standing in the room.

Alysha said it was well known Lester had engaged in behaviours like this.

She told the commission she reported him to her line managers, Ms Honan and human resources after she was made aware of historical child sexual abuse allegations against Lester.

He remained on-site for a further 11 months, conducting strip searches and working in the same office.

"It was quite torturous having to see him … and work alongside someone with allegations of that nature knowing he's working amongst some of the most vulnerable children in the state," Alysha told the commission.

"I've never felt so helpless in my life. There was nothing I could do to reduce the risk."

Alysha also told the commission about multiple other occasions in which she made reports, was dissuaded from going to the police and nothing was done.

She has been on leave from the centre since April 2020.

The Ashley hearings at the commission continue until Friday. 

*Name has been changed.

Posted updated 
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Source : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-22/female-detainee-tells-of-abuse-while-at-ashley-detention/101356144

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