Detention Dividends

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"I took my clothes off because they treat us like animals," said Mercy Guobatia, a detainee at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where a group of women last year staged a naked protest over inadequate health care and the detention of children.

Yarl’s Wood, 90 minutes north of London, is run by Serco, the Australian Government’s new appointment to manage the nation’s immigration detention centres.

The Rudd Government has made significant reforms to immigration detention, including ending the Pacific Solution, abolishing temporary protection visas, speeding up the processing of asylum claims and expanding alternative forms of detention. However, it has not implemented the longstanding ALP policy of returning the centres to public management.

On 29 June, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) announced it had signed a $370 million five-year detention services contract — one of the world’s most lucrative — with Serco.

British-based Serco (its name is short for "services company") is an outsourcing empire with 600 largely government sector contracts in 35 countries — including an estimated £2 billion (AU$4.1 billion) worth of contracts for prisons and security.

In the UK, Serco’s security interests include running court-escorting services and electronic monitoring of home detention as well as five prisons, two youth "training centres" (prisons), two immigration detention centres and 16 prison and detention centre health services. With a contract to build and operate two more UK prisons announced on the same day as the Australian deal, the company is set to become the UK’s biggest private prison operator.

It is a sector — Serco confidently predicts in its 2008 annual report — that will continue to provide opportunities for expansion in both the UK and Australia.

Serco already operates two prisons in Australia and bid for the Parklea and Cessnock prison contracts in New South Wales. It will replace the controversy-dogged Global Solutions Limited (GSL), which last month was found by the Western Australian coroner to have contributed to the death of an Aboriginal man in its custody.

Although Serco has a clean record in Australia — where it is yet to manage an immigration detention centre — the company has been the subject of considerable controversy in the UK.

"We feel they are responsible for continuing human rights abuses in the detention centres they run here, and we have published medical evidence to that effect," says Emma Ginn, coordinator of Medical Justice, a network of doctors, lawyers and advocates which monitors medical treatment and conditions in England’s 10 immigration detention centres.

Serco spokesperson Emma Needham last week stood by comments, quoted in the Australian media earlier this year, that the company’s human rights record was impeccable and had been borne out in reports by England’s HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In the report of her most recent visit to Colnbrook detention centre, however, the Chief Inspector of Prisons registered myriad concerns about safety, inadequate provision of services and infringements of human rights.

And at the company’s other detention centre, Yarl’s Wood, 20 detainees were last month on a hunger strike protesting substandard healthcare and conditions and the detention of children. After several days, a sit-in staged by the group was broken up by Serco officers. Detainees allege excessive force was used, some people were injured and families were separated during the operation. The UK Border Agency, Serco’s "customer", which handled media inquiries on the incident, denied any violence had occurred.

A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England released two months ago documented significant concerns about healthcare at Yarl’s Wood — which is provided largely by Serco Health.

Some notoriety also attached itself to Serco after the youngest death in custody of modern times occurred in one of its "secure training centres" in 2004. Fourteen-year-old Adam Rickwood, described by a High Court justice as a "deeply vulnerable child", took his own life after he was restrained by four officers and struck when he refused to go to his room. 

According to Emma Ginn from Medical Justice, Serco’s record does not differ significantly from those of other private operators of detention centres in the UK. In its 2008 report Outsourcing Abuse, Medical Justice collated information on close to 300 alleged assaults of immigration detainees — most occurring while detainees were being moved between centres or deported — over a four-and-a-half year period. Due to under reporting and its own lack of resources to follow up reports, the organisation believes this figure represents "the tip of the iceberg" and claims it is evidence of "widespread and seemingly systemic abuse".

Although there are significant differences, in size, scale and operation, between the immigration detention systems in Australia and the UK, the issues — and the companies — are the same.

"There is a real issue with prison companies being used to operate the system of mandatory detention," says Melbourne based human rights advocate Charandev Singh, "because the one thing prison companies are good at is punishing people".

"Put simply, most of the centres feel like prisons," the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wrote in its 2008 Immigration Detention Report. While recognising improvements in facilities and services in recent years, the Commission noted its concerns about the "security-driven atmosphere" in detention centres. The new Christmas Island centre was singled out as "a formidable high-security facility" that should not be used for the purpose of administrative detention.

Since its introduction in 1992, successive Australian governments have struggled with the business of mandatory detention. Management deals — with Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) and with current operator GSL — were widely criticised both for their cost and their failure to ensure standards of care.

According to DIAC, the new contract with Serco, "encompasses a stronger focus on the rights and wellbeing of people in detention and provides a comprehensive framework for ongoing quality improvement".

Exactly what this involves, however, is unlikely to become public information. A departmental spokesperson who at first stonewalled questions from newmatilda.com on grounds of "ongoing negotiations" and "commercial-in-confidence" later provided the information that the standards in the new contract are "evidenced-based" and "… focus on service outcomes for people in detention, including programs and activities, catering, transport, reception, cleaning, incident management and complaints". He confirmed that parts of the contract will remain commercial-in-confidence.

Despite self-reported cultural change within the Immigration Department since the Palmer and Comrie reports of 2005 — which dealt with the unlawful detention of Vivian Alvarez Solon and Cornelia Rau — public accountability remains a live issue, given the Department’s intention to monitor Serco’s management of the detention centres itself.

As then-Inspector of Custodial Services in WA, Richard Harding, observed about the existing contract with GSL: "The regulator is the principal operator, thus has a vested interest in its delegates appearing to be doing a satisfactory job".

DIAC does emphasise the role of scrutiny provided by external agencies in the operation of immigration detention — the AHRC, Commonwealth Ombudsman and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conduct visits and report on conditions in the centres and the Immigration Detention Advisory Group visits them and advises the minister — but as the AHRC itself points out, these bodies have no legal power to enforce their recommendations. The same is true of the Ombudsman’s findings on individual cases of detention he reviews.

"The Commission is of the view that there is currently no effective mechanism in place to ensure that all immigration detainees are treated in accordance with Australia’s human rights obligations," the 2008 Immigration Detention Report states, noting that the "detention standards" are neither legislated nor independently monitored and do not in any case provide detainees with effective remedies for breaches of their human rights.

"When I think about public accountability these days," says Monash Centre for Regulatory Studies director Graeme Hodge, "not only do I think about the area of instruments or mechanisms by which we want to hold people accountable — that’s monitoring committees, standards and so on, all the formal things that you see in detention centre contracts — I also think about … how do we check and control governments abusing the power that we give them? … There is a new bunch of questions to do with transparency and taking down the walls of commercial-in-confidence that really ought to be asked."

Concerns about accountability and transparency were given greater substance when details of the GSL contract kept secret on commercial-in-confidence grounds were leaked to the media in 2005. They included a $25,000 penalty for the operator failing to report a "critical incident" to immigration officials within an hour. Along with a death in detention, hostage situation or mass breakout, the presence of the media was categorised as a critical incident.

In its recent submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry on the privatisation of prisons, the Serco Institute — the company’s think-tank — argued that competition and contracting in prison management could result in 20 to 30 per cent savings on operational costs for governments, mostly through reduced personnel costs. Adjustments to overall staffing levels would be achieved "through better physical design, service design or use of technology".

The submission cited research from the UK which found significant differences in the rate of pay between officers in public and privately managed prisons and suggested that a substantially higher staff turnover rate in the private sector was a "structural difference" between the two systems. Unsurprisingly then, on her most recent visit to the Colnbrook detention centre, the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that "staff turnover remained high".

Serco’s cost-cutting "physical design" measures were written up in the Guardian last year when the inspector found that two person cells at Doncaster prison had been turned into three person cells by placing beds in the shared toilet. Two years earlier the operator had been criticised for failing to provide many inmates with pillows and toilet seats.

The use of contracting by governments, Graeme Hodge says, is a sensible tool for the planning, monitoring and control of service delivery, but governments do not necessarily have to contract services to the private or NGO sectors. Particularly where there are no "sensible" contractors available, public sector management — perhaps in the form of a statutory body the department contracts to — "should certainly be up for discussion". According to the Minister, it will be, in 2012 — two years before the Serco contract expires.

Other changes are underway though. Late last month immigration minister Chris Evans introduced a Bill in the Senate to legislate the government’s New Directions in Detention policy, which includes the principle that people are held in detention centres only "as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time". While refugee advocacy groups have welcomed the legislation as a positive step, they point out that the legal framework of mandatory detention will remain largely in place — certain groups, including unlawful arrivals, are still to be mandatorily detained — and decisions on an individual’s detention will still not be subject to judicial review.

Meanwhile, despite controversy surrounding the death in its care of Ngaanyatjarra Lands traditional owner Mr Ward in Kalgoorlie, current detention centre operator GSL — now known as G4S — is set to sign a separate five-year contract with DIAC for the management of immigration detention residential housing and transit accommodation. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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