Ashley youth detainee alleges bribes offered if 'nice things' said about Tasmanian prison at abuse inquiry

Lucy MacDonald

Posted updated 
Side view of unidentified youth.
Max said he was at the detention centre for about an hour before "I started getting picked on".()

A former detainee of Tasmania's youth detention centre has told the commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse he was bribed by the current centre manager to say nice things about the facility — while the centre's manager says he was greeted with a "voodoo doll with pins through the heart" on his first day.

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 Tasmania's only youth prison
  • A detainee alleges he was sexually assaulted with a ping-pong bat, bashed by guards in places where there were no cameras
  • He alleges the centre manager offered him video games and other incentives if he said "nice things about Ashley" at the commission

The first time Max* was sent to the Ashley Youth Detention Centre he was 12.

He was housed in the Franklin unit — a unit generally used to house older inmates or some of the worst-behaved inmates at the centre.

"I was there for about an hour when I started getting picked on," he told the commission.

It was "nothing major", but he told the guards he did not feel safe.

He said they responded by saying: "You're the one that did the crime. If you don't feel like coming here, don't do the crime."

After that he locked himself down in his room, staying there as much as possible. 

A cluster of buildings and fencing in a green countryside seen from the air.
The Ashley Youth Detention Centre is Tasmania's only custodial facility for young offenders.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Max was bailed but returned to Ashley a few weeks later where he was placed in a unit with several boys, including someone he knew from the outside.

"I tried telling the staff, 'I can't go there', and they said, 'You have to go where we tell you,'" he said.

He was moved to the unit regardless.

As soon as the boy he knew saw him, he threatened to "bash him".

The boys in the unit then urged him to sit on a bench with them and one of them "whipped out his d***".

"He said, 'You're gonna be sucking this' and I said, 'No, I'm not.'

"Then he slapped me a few times in the face and I jumped up and hit him once and then he just hit me … and I dropped to the ground and he started jumping on my head."

He said a nearby youth worker intervened and eventually the pair of them were restrained.

Max told the commission he did not get any counselling until years after the incident.

He also told the commission about an incident where he was sexually assaulted with a ping-pong bat, described being "bashed" by guards in places where there were no cameras and spoke about invasive, aggressive strip searches.

Max said it felt like it was not safe to complain and worried that no-one would believe him.

"[The staff] said: 'That's a dog thing to do. No-one is going to believe you over us … there's four of us here,'" he said.

"I just thought … he's right. They're not going to believe me over four other people."

When he heard about the commission last year, he said he was "happy as".

"I thought it was the best thing, an opportunity to tell my story," he said.

But he told the commissioner that the manager of the centre, Stuart Watson was not so keen.

"He asked me why I'm doing it and I said, 'I'm telling exactly what happens here, how shit it is,'" he said. 

Max said Mr Watson replied with, "they don't need to hear all that bullshit, they've got enough going on with fake allegations".

Max told the commission Mr Watson then tried to bribe him, offering video games, to move him to another unit and saying he would let him go offsite if he said "nice things about Ashley".

Max said that as a result when he had his first meeting with the commission, he lied.

"I just said that everything was fine there, it was the best place you could be, it's helped me with heaps of stuff … tiny bit of that was true … about the school," he said.

He said another resident did the same.

"[We] just went there and said how good Ashley was, which was a load of shit," he told the commission.

But he said when he went back and spoke to Mr Watson, he "acted like the conversation had never happened".

Counsel assisting the commission Rachel Ellyard said Mr Watson would be giving evidence that the conversation never happened and he never told the boys what to say.

She said he would say he did have conversations about how to access different units or go offsite, but it was not linked to the commission.

Max told the commission he was not fazed because he knew "the honest truth".

Voodoo doll left for incoming manager

Mr Watson told the commission he was "confident" he didn't bribe or incentivise Max to provide or not provide information to the commission.

"I was actually pleased that residents were speaking to the commission because it's their voice that needs to be heard," he said.

He said he didn't even recall having a conversation about Max giving evidence to the commission and said he'd never use the words "fake allegations".

But he couldn't explain why Max would've claimed he'd bribed him.

"I don't know why Max has said that. I'm disappointed by that," he said.

Mr Watson said he was aware Ashley had a dark history and told the commission he was bullied when he started as assistant manager in January 2020.

He said the youth workers were excited and very welcoming, but Lester*, who had been using his office, didn't vacate it for four days.

"He left it really dirty and grotty and there was a voodoo doll hanging from the monitor with pins through the heart," he said.

"It was Lester's belief that he could drive me out and assume the position of assistant manager."

About a week after he started, the then-manager Patrick Ryan went on leave and Mr Watson was left in charge.

"I spoke to Mr Ryan about that and said 'do you mind if I contact you by telephone?'" he said.

"He said to me 'I'm going to be on a beach. I won't have a telephone on me. There's nothing I can do'."

The commission heard another employee, Alysha, raised multiple concerns with him soon after he started. Some of them he acted on quickly, such as reporting Lester* who was accused of historical sexual abuse.

But he also said he regretted not responding to an email from Alysha that raised concerns about a detainee who was allegedly threatened with sexual and physical assault on a roof.

"Very regrettably I didn't pick up on that email … and I was horrified when I saw it," he told the commission.

"I made an error and I didn't follow that through … I'm extremely concerned I didn't pick up on it and that was a failing."

Mr Watson took over the centre manager role in February 2021. 

He said under his watch there had been "really significant changes" and that the centre had been on a "change journey".

"Unfortunately, we're also on a closure journey, but that doesn't mean that we stop trying to build the centre to be the best that it possibly can for the young people that are there at the moment."

In September 2021 former premier Peter Gutwein announced Ashley would close within three years, to be replaced by two smaller youth detention facilities with therapeutic models of care, one in the state's south and another in the north. 

There is no official closure date for Ashley. 

The Ashley hearings at the commission of inquiry continue until Friday. 

*Name has been changed.

Posted updated 

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