Privatising human rights abuses: Will Serco Australia run the show?
From two subsequent inspections ordered at the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, the death of a 24-year old African asylum seeker in Yarlswood to the death of 14-year-old 'model trainee' Adam Rickwood, and another prisoner dying from meningitis because guards ignored his pleas and calls for medical help, UK jailing contractor Serco is not an organisation that ever should have been chosen to jail Australia's refugees.
But that's what seems to happen: Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced in April 2009 that this company's Australian subsidiary, Serco Australia, is his preferred tenderer to run Australia's Immigration centres.
MEDIA RELEASE: UK Children's Commissioner releases damning report on Australia's preferred detention services tenderer
Project SafeCom Inc.
UK Children's Commissioner releases damning report on Australia's preferred detention services tenderer
"The Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, yesterday released a damning report into findings in the Yarlswood detention centre, operated by Serco, the detention services company recently announced by Australia's Immigration Minister Chris Evans, as its preferred tenderer to operate Australia's detention services for the next five years," WA Rights group Project SafeCom said this morning.
The publicly released report is now available from Project SafeCom's website here
"The Commissioner's findings, as reported by the UK Independent, provides chilling evidence of what happens when detention care is in the hands of a 'third party' in a privatisation context," spokesman Jack H Smit said.
"Labor while in opposition, told its voters and its party members, that if and when elected it would return detention services to the Australian public service, but its promises, just like other promises - around Australia's excised zones - were not kept."
"Now Australia intends to outsource its detention centre care to one of the world's blatant human rights abusers with a proven record of abuse levelled at many children, as well as adults, in its care. Serco Australia, who was nominated at the preferred tenderer by Minister Chris Evans, should never be appointed to run our detention centres: if it is, we are sure to face more shocking stories coming out of our detention centres," Mr Smit said.
Charandev Singh, a Volunteer Human Rights and Indigenous Education Advocate with the Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre in Victoria, states:
"The Children's Commissioners Report cites SERCO 44 times. The Commissioner's inspection of SERCO's Yarl's Wood detention centre occurred in May 2008. In Australia DIAC was still examining SERCO's background, probity and track record at the same time. SERCO stated to CRIKEY Media on 2 April 2009:
"the company's human rights record was impeccable and had been borne out in reports by UK Prisons Inspectorate.
"We are committed to caring for detainees with decency and respect. We are particularly excited by the Australian Government's desire to see the new Service Delivery Model introduced -- a new client centred culture for immigration detention in Australia."
"The disparity between their conduct and their statements, no doubt replicated in their tender submissions, need closer scrutiny especially since SERCO and DIAC are currently finalising the terms of their new contract.
For more information:
Jack H Smit, Project SafeCom Inc. Mobile 0417 090 130
Inside Yarl's Wood: Britain's shame over child detainees
Emily Dugan on the shocking treatment of families in immigration centres
The Independent, UK
Children held in the infamous Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre are being denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm, a damning report by the Children's Commissioner for England will say tomorrow.
Sir Al Aynsley-Green's investigation paints a shocking picture of neglect and even cruelty towards children trapped within the centre's razor-wired walls, and finds "substantial evidence that detention is harmful and damaging to children and young people".
Since opening in 2001, the Bedfordshire detention centre has been plagued by hunger strikes, self-harm incidents, a suicide and riots. It was severely damaged by fire during disturbances in 2002. Despite repeated scandals and the damning findings of this report planning permission was given last month to double the centre's capacity from 405 places to nearly 900.
Around 2,000 children a year are held in immigration centres half in Yarl's Wood, which has been run by a private company, Serco, since 2007. The experience they described is prison in all but name. Politicians, immigration experts and doctors last night called for an end to the detention of children and for urgent measures to ensure other detainees are treated humanely.
The report, based on the most recent inspection by Sir Al, reveals that basic safeguards for children in Yarl's Wood are failing. Welfare issues raising "serious concern" were ignored, with children forced to remain in custody even when they were seriously ill or in danger from parents with mental health problems, the report says. It also criticises the "scant regard to basic welfare needs" during arrest and transportation to the centre.
Key meetings between social services, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Yarl's Wood staff designed to discuss the welfare implications of keeping a child locked up for more than 28 days dwelt instead on PR and legal concerns. The commissioner calls for an urgent review to "ensure the best interests of the child are central to decisions on detention".
The UKBA claims that steps have now been taken to protect children since the inspection last May, but Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at The Children's Society, disputes this. "The agency has not made the improvements necessary to safeguard these children," she said. "The Secretary of State for Children must intervene immediately as this report exposes serious child protection risks which have not been adequately addressed."
The commissioner found that seriously ill children were denied hospital treatment, while bureaucracy substantially delayed others with critical conditions from getting to hospital. A baby with pneumonia and a teenager with severe mental health problems were among those affected. Despite being the main detention centre for children, no one on the Yarl's Wood health team has child health qualifications, the report says.
Sir Al found major healthcare shortcomings at the centre, describing safeguards, records and professionalism as inadequate and below NHS standards. He reports that two children with sickle cell disease were not allowed to bring their penicillin with them when they were seized from their homes. As a result they became seriously ill and required urgent treatment. Instead of being referred to hospital for intravenous fluids and antibiotics they were simply given paracetamol. Under the NHS this would be categorised as a life-threatening "Serious Untoward Incident".
Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. One diabetic child had three emergency treatments in the 24 days she was detained including two occasions where her blood sugar left her "un-rousable" but was still not released. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.
Immunisations were denied to children documented as needing them, creating a health risk. One child was even given the wrong vaccine, while the centre's policy for preventing malaria was described as containing "serious errors" and being "unacceptably poor".
Doctors working for Medical Justice, an organisation that provides voluntary medical assistance for Yarl's Wood families, insist there is wider evidence of medical abuse beyond the commissioner's report. They say they have documented evidence of a child under 12 being given his mother's anti-depressant drugs on removal; of a young person in severe pain with sickle cell disease being denied painkillers because he was unable to walk to the clinic to receive them in person; and of children contracting severe malaria on being returned to their home country because they were refused suitable preventative medicine.
Paediatrician Dr Fred Martineau said: "The detention of children, whether newborn babies or adolescents, almost invariably causes them physical or emotional suffering. Doctors from Medical Justice regularly see the effects of this, ranging from a failure to give immunisations against potentially fatal diseases, through to clinical depression ...The only way of preventing this harm is to end their detention."
Healthcare at Yarl's Wood has long been a problem, with outbreaks of vomiting bugs and chickenpox common. The centre was last night understood to be in the middle of yet another chickenpox quarantine.
The report describes the ordeal of "dawn raids" where up to 20 officers arrive to seize families in the early hours of the morning. Children repeatedly reported being treated with violence, including being dragged on the floor and thrown to the ground.
Young people told how traumatised they were by the experience, noting that officers seemed to be laughing at them and "taking pleasure in the family's distress". The study said: "In a large majority of cases, children reported that officers' behaviour had been aggressive, rude and, on a few occasions, violent."
Children were even watched by officers of the opposite sex while they dressed, which the report called "an unacceptable safeguarding risk which must be addressed immediately". They also had to watch parents being handcuffed and heavily restrained a direct flouting of UKBA guidelines. One mother, so distressed at being handcuffed in front of her family and thrown into a caged van, tried to hang herself with her son's shoelaces.
Caged prison vans are routinely used to transport children to the centre near Bedford, despite promises that people carriers would be used for families. Children were denied toilet breaks or food and drink. The vans, the report says, are "stained with urine and vomit".
The commissioner also expressed concern at the increase in the length of time for which children are being held, which threatens their mental well-being. Last week, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, told MPs: "Detention is a final option and is only used for the shortest period necessary." But the Children's Commissioner says: "The average length of time children and young people are being detained is increasing, and, crucially, the decision to detain them is neither being used as a last resort nor for the shortest period of time as required by Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child."
In conclusion, Sir Al calls for an end to the detention of children. "Each year in the UK, we detain around 2,000 children for administrative purposes. This has to end," he said.
His call was echoed by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who said: "The incarceration of thousands of children accused of no crime, often for months on end, is inhumane. The treatment of these vulnerable children in Yarl's Wood is a shameful indictment of the Government's failed immigration policy."
The Border and Immigration minister Phil Woolas said: "If people refuse to go home then detention becomes a necessity. We don't want to split up families, so we hold children with their parents, and while they are in our care we treat them with sensitivity and compassion."
Taken away: 'They came for us at night'
Dominic Mwafulirwa trembles at the words "Yarl's Wood". The eight-year-old was asleep when six guards wrenched him and his mother, Cecilia, 35, from their Swansea home in the early hours three months ago.
They had arrived in the UK from Malawi when Dominic was a year old. Cecilia, who had run away from an abusive husband, started a new life in Wales, where Dominic excelled at school. That life ended abruptly when the men arrived.
"Dominic didn't say a word from the time they came until we were locked up," Cecilia says. "It was hard to keep his spirits up. When I asked him why he wasn't going to the school at Yarl's Wood, he said: 'What's the point? We're not learning anything.' He refused to wash and started smashing things. He's still really angry and confused.
"We spent 50 days in that place. I lost 20kg. I'm a sickle cell patient and by the end of the 50 days my haemoglobin was too low. I'm really anaemic and they knew I had depression. They changed my medication and they threatened to take my son away."
Cecilia and Dominic have been out of Yarl's Wood since the end of March. They have yet to find out whether they will be allowed to stay in the UK.
Immigration detention services preferred tenderer announced
Department of Immigration
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) today announced Serco Australia Pty Ltd has been selected as the preferred tenderer for the new contract for the provision of a range of immigration detention services at immigration detention centres around Australia.
Serco Australia and its international parent company currently deliver immigration detention, residential care, custodial, transport and other services in a number of countries including Australia.
The five-year contract covers the provision of detention services at immigration detention centres (IDCs) and a range of transport and escort services to people in detention. The department will now enter into negotiations with the preferred tenderer, with the intention of signing the contract by 30 June 2009.
A separate five-year contract will be entered into for the delivery of detention services for immigration residential housing (IRH) and immigration transit accommodation (ITA). The preferred tenderer for this contract will be announced shortly. The tenders are separate processes.
"Proceeding with separate tenders has provided an opportunity to build in flexibility around the delivery of services in different environments," a departmental spokesman said today. "There has been a strong focus on making sure that services deliver the least restrictive form of detention appropriate to an individual's circumstances."
The development of the tender documentation and contract content was undertaken after extensive consultations with community and industry groups. Some 60 organisations participated in the consultations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The tender process reflects the way forward for detention services, incorporating the major changes at DIAC since the Palmer and Comrie reports.
"The new contract encompasses a stronger focus on the rights and well-being of people in detention and provides a comprehensive framework for ongoing quality improvement, including effective performance management systems," the spokesman said. "After an extensive tender and evaluation period, the preferred tenderer was assessed as being best placed to ensure people in immigration detention received fair and reasonable service, aligned with the government's New Directions in Detention policy."
The contract also focuses on delivering value for money in detention services. "All tender bids were evaluated on their merits in order to ensure that high service delivery standards would be met, while achieving the best value for money for the Commonwealth," the spokesman said.
Media Enquiries: National Communications 02 6264 2244
We, the people, need to know what goes on behind the prison fence
Sydney Morning Herald
Here we go again. Just when we think we have woken up to corporate shenanigans with the global financial crisis, and ditched plans to privatise NSW energy supplies and acknowledged that privatised road tolls place financial burdens on some drivers, jails become the subject of nonsensical ideas.
We will save money by outsourcing them, the politicians say.
Bulltwang. It will cost more, lead to less qualified staff and cutting every corner, including food and education for prisoners. Worse still, it will reduce accountability.
A senior lawyer in NSW who is among those most in touch with matters corrective, former judge David Levine, believes jails should not be privatised. "Jails should be an instrument of the state as part of the administration of justice," he said recently at the University of Sydney, as reported in the Herald.
What he could not say, due to legal and political constraints, was that governments should basically do their own dirty work.
Nobody likes the unpalatable fact that society must sometimes lock up individuals for the protection of the greater good. It has been a philosophical dilemma for centuries.
Not many people are willing to work in the human jungles we call jails. Fewer still are compassionate enough to provide genuine rehabilitation in what most people see as the garbage dumps of humanity. This has led to the political mantra that there are no votes in prisons. And it's probably true.
Eighteen years ago, as a crime reporter in Melbourne, I encountered a rare person - a senior warden in the prison system who cared, and tried to make life better for his charges. He leaked a report about what jails were really like. Many of his colleagues and bosses disagreed with his more humane approach. He left Australia.
When prison warders recently demonstrated against privatising Cessnock and Parklea jails, they seemed to share some of this concern. They are trained professionals who do the Government's dirty work, ranging from a shoulder to cry on to stopping a riot. It is not an easy job, but they know that if you stuff up, you are accountable to a government.
What happens if you are only accountable to a corporation that is worried about the bottom line?
Forget freedom-of-information access. Forget screening of staff, as sloppy as this may sometimes be in the government sector. Forget a coherent (if sometimes disjointed) approach to education and rehabilitation. It all comes down to bucks for the shareholders.
Few corporations are willing to do this sort of work. US giants like Wackenhut have a quasi-monopoly on privatised jails. Most of us would not want to do the job. We do not want to know the details, logistics or the finance, but this head-in-the-sand mentality benefits them.
We, as a society, have to take responsibility for locking up individuals. We have to try to lift prisoners from the dark places whence they came. Some will always be recidivists. But many will not.
I have recently moved from a professional to a personal stake in this argument. My sister was wrongly detained in a privatised jail in Baxter in 2004. Many people told me of unjust behaviours, but also of some caring guards in the system, so it is not all black-and-white.
However, now the new(ish) Federal Government wants to pass the contract for detention centres on to Serco, a British company once described in The Guardian as "probably the biggest company you've never heard of", which has grown with the privatisation of public services.
This is a potential minefield. The contract, due to be signed by June 30, is for five years. Money has not been specified, but the previous contractor, GSL, was paid $100 million a year for its efforts.
Serco was criticised in the British High Court after a 14-year-old boy under its care hanged himself in 2004. At another Serco site last year, mothers protested naked against the extended detention of children, many of them listed for deportation. Doncaster prison, a privatised Serco jail, was found to be so overcrowded that some prisoners had to sleep in the toilets.
This may be understandable in Britain, which has a far higher illegal immigration rate than Australia and is much more overcrowded. But here? Why are we giving this company the contract? And why is any government too scared to do its own dirty work?
Partly it is bureaucracy. A spokeswoman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, said the tender for this decision was well advanced - from March 2006 - when Labor won government. Cancelling the process could have prompted compensation claims, the minister's office said. It also said supervision of contractors will be more effective than in the past.
But this leaves the question why a company with such a past cannot be ditched by a "new government with new values". Or why, more fundamentally, governments should privatise jails at all.
Senator Evans said "broader policy issues" of whether detention centres should be managed by public or private sectors will be considered after an "evaluation" at the end of the contracts now up for tender.
Maybe I am naive, but I would have thought it possible to evaluate contenders now. Why waste time, money or human suffering? At least it is open to debate until June 30.
Christine Rau is a freelance journalist, and sister of Cornelia Rau.
Detention company set to be dropped
The Federal Government is set to dump controversial company G4S as operator of immigration detention centres.
The Department of Immigration has announced that Serco, which runs prisons and immigration centres in Britain, is its preferred tender to run Australia's six detentions centres. The contract is believed to be worth up to $500 million.
But human rights advocates have hit out at the decision, saying Serco has a poor record in Britain, and detention centres should be operated by the public sector.
Advocate Charandev Singh said Serco's record in Britain showed a "prison mentality" would be brought to its operations in Australia.
"The Government just wants a clean skin in Australia -- somebody with no blemishes (here)," Mr Singh said.
"G4S and Serco are basically the same company. They come from the same corporate background, running prisons."
In 2004, a boy, 14, hung himself in a Serco-run youth detention centre in Britain after a guard restrained him with a "nose distraction" technique, part of a wider pain compliance regime.
A coroner's inquiry found the regime contravened human rights law and staff were not trained properly.
Immigration detention services must be under public control
Greens Media Release
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called on Immigration Minister Chris Evans to transfer the running of immigration detention centres to public hands.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship yesterday announced a preferred tenderer for a new five-year contract to provide detention services at immigration detention centres.
The Labor Party's 2007 National Platform and Constitution specifically states that the operation of detention centres should be returned to government control, to ensure there is a clear line of responsibility back to the Minister.
"The Government's announcement that it is considering a new five-year contract for immigration detention services is disappointing and strikingly at odds with the Labor's pre-election promises," said Senator Hanson-Young.
"Outsourcing is not an appropriate way of handling the claims and care of these vulnerable people seeking our assistance and protection, particularly when some of the detention facilities are so remote from the Australian mainland.
"Accountability and transparency are key to making sure human rights and justice are respected in Australia's immigration processes.
"The Greens urge the Government to return all immigration detention services to public control, to open up a direct line of responsibility between the Department, the Minister and the immigration processes that occur in these detention facilities."
Labor breaks detention promise
Controversial prison operator G4S will have its contract to run Australia's immigration detention centres extended until at least July 31 despite Labor's pre-election promise that the public sector would manage the centres.
And detention centres will remain in private hands for several years after the Government confirmed it would proceed with the retendering process started by the Howard government.
In 2006 the former government announced it would not extend G4S's $300 million contract when it expired at the end of 2007, and all detention services would be retendered.
Labor criticised the decision and said the contract with G4S (formerly GSL) should be terminated and the centres returned to government control so there was a clear line of responsibility back to the minister.
"This is the private company that has people coming in the doors with no mental health problems and going out as broken human beings," then Labor immigration spokesman Tony Burke said. "There is one answer and one answer alone, and that is there have been enough breaches of this contract for the government to take action to terminate the privatisation of our detention centres. It was a bad idea from the start. It should not have taken place. It should not be continued."
The ALP's 2007 platform also stated that the public sector would manage the detention centres.
But The Age has learnt that G4S's contract has been extended until July 31, with the contract allowing for further extensions if necessary.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the retendering was well advanced when the Rudd Government came into office and the lack of alternative public-service providers would have required the current contract to be extended for at least two years anyway.
"After weighing up all the issues and costs, and giving detailed and serious consideration to the options available, the Government has determined the most prudent way forward is to finalise the current tender process," he said. The successful tenderer will be announced within six months. Senator Evans said policy on managing detention centres would be reviewed at the end of the new contract.
"We will impose higher standards on the detention services contractors and the department will be monitoring the contract more closely than before," he said. "It is a question of the values that apply rather than who applies them."
When G4S began running detention centres in 2003, critics claimed it introduced a punitive regime, including solitary confinement.
The company was fined $500,000 in 2005 after staff refused detainees food, water and access to a toilet on a seven-hour bus trip between the Maribyrnong and Baxter detention centres.
But in his annual report on detention centres, Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes said staff attitudes, services and activities in the centres had generally improved in the past few years.