Serco Warns Of 'Self-Harm Culture'


Internal documents from Serco reveal that staff at immigration detention centres are told to be alert to detainees using self-harm as a "bargaining tool" in their claims for asylum. The staff memo and incident log, obtained by New Matilda, also reveals just how widespread self-harm is at detention centres — leading the company to warn employees of a "self-harm culture".

The documents add alarming detail to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s statistics on self-harm in detention centres.

Figures from DIAC reveal that across all of Australia’s immigration detention centres, there were 1132 incidents of actual or threatened self-harm over the 12 months ending 30 June 2011, compared to 90 such incidents in the 12 months ending 30 June 2010 — a 12-and-a-half fold surge.

The Serco documents provide closer details. On just one day, 9 June 2011, there were five incidents of self-harm at the Christmas Island detention centre. Over an 11 day period, from 9 to 20 June 2011, documents record 48 self-harm incidents at Christmas Island.

Disturbingly, Serco instructs staff in the memo to be alert to abnormal behaviour because "clients … are using self-harm as their bargaining tool".

In response, a spokesperson for Serco told NM: "While this memo aimed, commendably, to remind staff to be vigilant, commenting on self-harm in the terms that it did was not appropriate, and presented a partial and oversimplified view of the reasons that self-harm might occur."

NM asked Serco what was being done to address the culture of self-harm.

"Our staff … work extremely hard to support and treat people in detention, to reduce any distress they may be suffering and to prevent self-harm," the spokesperson said.

Louise Newman, chair of the independent Detention Health Advisory Group, which advises the Federal Government on mental health issues in detention centres, told New Matilda that suicide and self-harm is contagious in how it spreads across the closed, highly distressed communities of detention centres. "Sometimes it’s symbolic, sometimes it’s stress relieving. We know that it’s going on on a daily basis," she said.

She also told NM that the workers employed to work in detention centres are neither mental health workers nor psychologically trained. "They’re trained in what to do in the immediate aftermath of an event, not prevention."

Last month New Matilda published the first publicly available copy of the 2009 contract between Serco and DIAC, which revealed that staff at detention centres could be hired without any security qualifications for the first six months of their employment. The contract also reveals that some mental health awareness training must be provided on the job — but does not provide specifications.

NM asked Serco what that training involves. We were told that all staff undertake a four-week induction program that includes mental health and suicide awareness training. As well, "All appropriate staff participate in a rolling program of DIAC-provided mental health training and refresher training".

Evidence given to the State Coroner’s inquest into a suicide at Villawood detention centre shows that a lack of training may well have contributed to the death of Josefa Rauluni. On 20 September 2010, the day he was due to be deported to Fiji, the 36-year-old Fijian national jumped to his death from a two-storey building at Villawood detention centre’s maximum security zone after a one-and-a half-hour standoff with Serco staff.

Psychiatrist Michael Diamond told Glebe Coroner’s Court that the actions of staff had escalated the situation, "Those who were dealing with him [Rauluni] lacked the training, expertise and ability to recognise what was playing out in front of them," Diamond told the inquest.

Rauluni’s death was one of three detainee suicides at Villawood over a 10 week period in 2010 which remain the subject of a coronial investigation.

NM asked Serco whether the company had received any fines and sanctions from DIAC regarding incidents of suicide and self-harm in detention centres. The spokesperson declined to answer that question, but we were told: "Months when abatements increased coincided with an exponential increase in the numbers of people in immigration detention".

"There were 1200 people in our care when we took over the contract, a number which rose to a peak of 6500," the spokesperson said.

"Neither the increase in numbers nor the pressure it created were anticipated when we signed the contract to provide services to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship."

The spokesperson said abatement compliance had been over 90 per cent since June 2010.

The rates of self-harm revealed in the internal memos are alarming — but refugee advocates believe that self-harm is even higher than reported. Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told New Matilda, "We know from information from staff at the detention centres and our scrutiny of Serco running sheets that attempted suicide rates are definitely under-reported".

Professor Newman agreed that it’s likely that the number of self-harm behaviours is higher than reported.

Rintoul continued: "Incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide are on the rise and can broadly be correlated to the increasing lengths of time people are in detention." According to immigration detention statistics from DIAC, of the 5597 people in immigration detention as at 30 September 2011, 2035 people — or 36 per cent — had been in detention for 12 months or more.

"The essential problem is long-term, indefinite detention itself, so it is difficult to see any possible improvement until detention is itself ended," Rintoul said.

"Short of that, ensuring that processing arrangements are transparent and have time limits for the various stages of processing would help remove the uncertainty, arbitrariness and capriciousness of the present arrangements. These are the main contributing factors to the deterioration of mental health associated with detention."

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.