Detention centre workers


Over-stressed, over-worked and under-trained, Australian immigration detention staff are buckling under the pressure and their trauma is having a direct impact on detainees.

Last week’s court ruling that found the Commonwealth contributed to the ‘progressive deterioration’ of two suicidal detainees came as no surprise to former detention officers, who recall working in environments that they liken to war-zones.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

‘Tracey’ is one of many former detention officers I interviewed for a report published in Griffith Review: People Like Us (ABC Books) this week. She worked in centres for three years; first at Woomera, where her ‘on the job training’ coincided with a mass hunger strike, then at Baxter, where mentally ill Australian woman, Cornelia Rau, was held. Like so many other ex-detention centre employees, she is now on stress leave.

Much has been made of the allegedly haphazard training offered staff by the previous service provider ACM. So much so that a 2001 Government report included this summary of staff orientation. ‘All applicants for positions with ACM are psychologically tested,’ it stated. ‘All staff are trained to look after detainees, to treat them with respect and to provide a humane environment.’ Those employees moving from ACM’s correctional arm underwent a 24-hour bridging course, in addition to 240 hours of orientation and pre-service training.

None of the staff I interviewed could remember any substantial orientation program. Most were given Codes of Conduct that outlined various ‘motherhood’ statements relating to the appropriate treatment of immigration detainees. ‘At Woomera we sat in a classroom for the first three weeks and (did) a bit of riot training, fire training, baton strike training and basically that was about it,’ Tracey remembers. Cross-cultural issues were low on the agenda.

It appears not much has changed. A Port Augusta man went to a staff information session at the local TAFE just over a year ago. Officers outlined some of the ‘extremities’ new recruits might face: riots, searches, alongside day-to-day contact with the detainees. Little was said about the job’s cross-cultural dimensions (other than the need for different kinds of meals and a ‘little bit about language’).

Such ignorance may be behind hostility between officers and detainees, but former detention officer and supervisor, Tracey, also recalls ‘young lads’ in their 20s, who were impatient to ‘get stuck in’ and fight. ‘I pulled a couple of these officers aside and said, ‘You want to get kitted up and swing a baton at people, I just hope to God that you never, ever have to get in that riot gear and start swinging at people. It’s not a nice feeling.’

Yet allegations regarding the use of excessive force against detainees at Baxter are not unheard of. In February, an Adelaide doctor told the ABC that he had seen unexplained physical injuries that did not look as if they were either self-inflicted, or the result of accidents. While the 2003-2004 Commonwealth Ombudsman report noted ‘the number of complaints from detainees alleging assault by another detainee or a detention officer and the process in place to address such complaints (is) another matter of continuing concern’.

In October, former Baxter detention officer, Paul Leavai, received a two-month suspended sentence after kneeing a detainee in the stomach around the time of the 2003 Easter riot. According to the Adelaide Advertiser, he now works for Chubb Security at a refugee camp on Nauru. Tracey was also working at Easter in 2003 and remembers it as a particularly traumatic experience. For four days and three nights, staff-members were accommodated in the gym and denied contact with their families. Usual 12-18 hour shifts soon became 29 hours straight. (At Baxter, she says, detention officers were rostered on 144-hour fortnights, six days a week).

By her fifth shift at Baxter, Tracey was feeling the strain. ‘I had the same expression on my face all the time.’ She started to feel anti-social and didn’t care anymore. ‘It was like a survival thing for yourself, you’ve got to get through your own day first, before taking anything else on board,’ she says. ‘In the end, you just couldn’t give a shit about anybody. You didn’t give a shit about detainees. It was like I spent more time here with them than with my own family.’ She is now trying to move on from her experience, but is still haunted by it.

Hers is not an isolated case. During the 2002-3 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity (HREOC) hearings into children in detention, there was one recurring theme. One by one, former staff told stories that resembled each other. Top-level managers, DIMIA or ACM, short-term employees; the so-called FIFOs (fly-in fly-outs) and permanent staff, referred to difficulties they faced coming to terms with what they saw, or had to do, within the detention environment.

This issue is far from resolved. When asked why she wanted to speak out, Tracey’s answer is simple: ‘The system hasn’t changed.’ She is also concerned about friends still working at Baxter. ‘Anybody who has to go into that centre and work in those conditions for long periods of time is going to crack. I’ve seen ex-policemen, 6 foot 2, big burly coppers, in a heap crying because the pressure has got to them,’ she says.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.