The mother of a detainee at Ashley Youth Detention Centre has told Tasmania's Commission of Inquiry she feared for her son's life while he was incarcerated, but her son would be “punished” every time she raised concerns.

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

Key points:

  • Tasmania's Commission of Inquiry into Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings has turned its focus to the state's only youth prison, Ashley
  • The mother of one inmate told the commission she did not dispute her son “should have been there”
  • But she added her child “didn't deserve to have violence perpetrated on him, didn't deserve to see his friends die”

Eve's* son Norman* was sent to Ashley, in Tasmania's north, as a 17-year-old after a long struggle with his mental health.

His father had bipolar and schizophrenia and had died by suicide when Norman was 13. 

Norman was receiving medication for bipolar at the time he was admitted to Ashley, but his medication didn't go with him.

“I was really, really worried for him because I knew that, without the medication, he would start to unravel, that he wouldn't be coping,” Eve told the commission on Friday.

“He was put into an intake room where other children would walk past and bang on the windows and say, 'wait till you get out here'.

“He was a very small child and some of these inmates were bigger than the guards. Apparently that's par for the course.”

Eve told the hearing she was frantically calling Ashley, making representations to politicians and the Children's Commissioner, and was asking doctors and mental health advocates to write to the centre on her behalf.

She told the commission her son was being punished by the staff for her concern.

“Every time I rang, they would put him on three minutes observation in a little cell, which was basically to stop me from complaining, because he had a repercussion every time I complained.

“Their answer was, 'we'll put him in three-minute observation', and they'd say it to you really smugly.”

Eve told the commission the staff stopped taking her calls and sent memos to one-another not to speak with her.

Norman also stopped taking her calls, and eventually refused visits. Later she found out why.

“It's a little bit upsetting for a parent to know that just for a child to come visit his mother in a room, that the guards are going to fossick through their anus and their genitals on their way back out,” she said.

“It did feel awful knowing that that did happen every time I visited him, but it wasn't until later on that I found out there was a lot of bastardisation going on during these searches. 

“I won't go into detail, but it was enough for him to not want me to visit anymore.”

Child inmate at Ashley Youth Detention Centre ruined by incarceration experience, mother tells inquiry

Ashley Youth Detention Centre is set to close by 2024 and be replaced by two purpose-built facilities.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Norman was at Ashley in 2010, when fellow detainee Craig Sullivan died from a brain abscess.

Eve told the commission her son could hear Craig asking for pain relief and for an ambulance, and witnessed the guards telling him to clean up his own vomit.

“[Norman] must've been worried that that could happen to him,” she said.

She said her son was never the same after he came home from Ashley, and implored commissioners to recommend children at the facility be treated as children.

“I don't disagree that my child should have been there. However, he didn't deserve to have violence perpetrated on him, he didn't deserve to see his friends die, and he didn't deserve to be bastardised,” she said.

“He was save-able [sic]. He was a child who still had a future. But they changed that, and the future has been pretty awful.”

Ashley likened to 'kindergarten' for adult prison

A lawyer representing detainees told the commission that no child should be in detention.

“They belong with their families, they belong in school, and they belong in their community,” Hannah Phillips said.

“It's an indictment on the system that it gets to that point, that a young person who has most likely had significant disadvantage in their life, and there are significant social issues, is in a detention facility.”

She told the commission that out of 10 children recently housed at Ashley, seven were Aboriginal.

“There's also no denying that Ashley is essentially a kindergarten for Risdon [adult prison],” Ms Phillips said.

“I've seen that throughout my career, that that is regularly the case that children in Ashley regularly end up in Risdon, and that it is the quicksand of the legal system.”

Child inmate at Ashley Youth Detention Centre ruined by incarceration experience, mother tells inquiry

Tasmania's child sexual abuse commission of inquiry started public hearings in May.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Another parent of a former detainee told the inquiry she thought Ashley would provide her daughter the education she needed.

Jane* told commissioners her daughter Ada started drinking and getting into trouble at the age of 11, shortly after the family moved to Tasmania from regional NSW.

Her drinking got so bad, Jane was advised her behaviour was “consistent with a primary alcoholic” by the age of 12, after she was admitted to hospital with alcohol poisoning.

Ada was made a partial ward of the state, and Jane told the commission a Labor politician arranged permission for her to be sent to Ashley while they decided on how to best care for her.

“I thought they'd look after her and make her safe, and get her an education,” Jane told the commission.

At the time, Ada hadn't been charged with any crimes. But Jane said she didn't receive an education, was given limited support for her alcoholism, and — as the only female detainee — had to “fight off some of the boys”.

Education limited by staff shortages

The current acting principal at the Ashley School, Samuel Baker, told the commission education is a “major part” of the current detainees' schedule.

“School starts at 9am, they have two breaks for recess and lunch, and it finishes around 2:30,” he told the commission.

“Generally, if people are able to access school, attendance is 100 per cent.”

But access to school has been impacted by regular staffing-induced lockdowns, he said.

“This year we've had to move to restricted practice, which occurs when the Ashley Youth Detention Centre can't staff enough youth workers to be able to transition young people around the school safely,” he said.

He said without being able to access the classrooms, educators are trying to teach detainees one-on-one in their unit, during the one hour per day they're allowed out of their rooms during lockdowns.

“But often there's other things that the student prioritises in that time, like phone calls,” Mr Baker said.

It was put to Mr Baker by counsel assisting this was not enough time to deliver the curriculum, and their educational opportunities were being curtailed.

“I'd agree with that statement,” he said.

The hearings into Ashley finish next Friday.

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