Serco recently won a West Australian government contract to manage a new, one-of-a-kind youth prison that will house 18 to 24-year-old male offenders from mid-2012.
According to the WA Government, the 80-bed Young Adults Facility is designed to "assist young men to take responsibility of their offending behavior in a safe and supportive environment". Its population will be primarily Indigenous, and most inmates will be first or second time offenders. Young men make up the majority of WA’s prison population, with extremely high rates of recidivism. The facility was created by the Barnett Government in an attempt to reduce re-offending by early intervention.
There is significant concern from community groups, unions, and the Labor Opposition about the way the contract was acquired, and how the centre will be run given Serco’s notorious track record at Australia’s immigration detention centres.
Serco was the sole bidder during the tender process for the facility, and when it was announced last month that they had won the contract, no information regarding the length, price or details of the deal was released. Competition and cost-effectiveness are the usual arguments made in favour of privatisation — but in this instance they don’t apply since there was only one tenderer. Does that mean Serco were able to name their price? Commercial in-confidence clauses make this question impossible to answer.
Another flaw in the tender process was the ‘public sector comparator’ — the estimate of what the proposed project would cost if the public sector were to undertake it. The standard comparator was carried out by the WA Government’s independent body of choice, KPMG. However, KPMG has worked with Serco on a number of state, national, and international contracts in the past, and there is currently speculation that the consultants were advising both the State government and Serco at the same time. The government will neither confirm nor deny the allegations, according to Shadow Minister for Corrective Services Fran Logan. Logan questioned Corrective Services Minister Terry Redman in parliament about the matter, stating:
"My understanding is that KPMG were called in to give advice to the government over this contract. There’s allegations that they were also advising Serco about contracting out services, and possibly at the same time, but at this stage there is no evidence. My understanding is that KPMG are Serco’s advisor of choice both here and in New South Wales."
Redman avoided the question.
Serco now holds all major justice contracts in WA, including the management of Acacia prison, the prisoner transport system (after the death of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in 2008 G4S’s contract was not renewed), the home detention system and court custodial services. This new facility will be the first youth facility operated by Serco in WA. The British multinational has plenty of experience running prisons in WA but none working with vulnerable young offenders. In fact, this is the first time a private company has run a youth facility in Australia.
It was the ALP that started privatising the justice system in WA, but they’ve done an about-turn this year, stating that they made a mistake renewing the Acacia prison contract in 2006. "A future Labor government would look closely at bringing Acacia back in house," Logan told New Matilda. "We certainly don’t support any further privatisation of prisons, probationary or parole services. If the State locks people up, then it has a responsibility and duty of care to look after them."
In August 2009, the Inspector of Custodial Services released a report outlining recommendations as to how the new Young Adults Facility should be run. One of the key areas was catering for the needs of Indigenous prisoners in terms of education, cultural understanding and family integration. The report stressed the importance of tailoring the proposed rehabilitation plan to suit Indigenous men, employing Indigenous staff, and ensuring that young men who originated in the north of the State were able to keep in regular contact with their families.
Indigenous rates of incarceration are distressingly high throughout Australia, but none so high as those of Indigenous males within the vulnerable 18-25 year age range. Taking into account adult, youth and juvenile incarceration rates, one in 20 Western Australian Indigenous males is currently in prison or detention.
Gerry Georgatos, who is doing a PhD on deaths in custody in Australia, believes Serco lacks the track record to manage the new centre. "It greatly distresses me to know that young people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, will be at the hands of Serco," he told New Matilda. "Serco fails asylum seekers in terms of cultural understandings, why all of a sudden will it have the awareness to understand Aboriginal people?"
Although Serco has never run a youth facility in Australia, it currently runs two in the UK — one of which is the Hassockfield Training Centre. In 2004, a 14-year-old boy committed suicide at Hassockfield after mistreatment and mismanagement by Serco guards. He was the youngest person to die in custody in British history.
Colin Penter, who is spokesperson for the community group Serco Watch, told NM: "There is a constant pattern of excessive use of force and disregard for the wellbeing of people in Serco’s care. They are essentially a law unto themselves. As they care for more and more vulnerable people, the worry grows."
The Community and Public Sector Union is also opposed to the new WA facility’s privatisation. The union’s Civil Service Association Branch Secretary Toni Walkington told New Matilda in October that the union were worried both for potential staff and prisoners.
"The consideration of Serco or any private company is to maximise profit and not to necessarily provide the services," she said. "Their focus is on making money rather than on service delivery."
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