The Guardian November 29, 2000


Woomera Centre owners must go! End the outrage.

by Andrew Jackson

The Federal Government should take control of the Woomera detention centre, 
following revelations of shocking human rights abuses at the centre and 
mounting evidence of a cover-up by the private operators Australasian 
Correctional Management (ACM) which demonstrates they are unfit to care for 
the refugees in their custody.

With public outrage growing, ACM and the Federal Government are in a 
desperate tussle to offload responsibility and culpability onto each other.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has been exposed for falsely denying 
any knowledge of sexual assaults in the camp, and for last week dismissing 
the allegations as "unsubstantiated" and "hearsay".

It is now clear that the Department of Immigration had detailed knowledge 
of child abuse allegations as early as March, and yet sat on its hands and 
continued to pay ACM millions of dollars in management fees.

ACM has so far refused to directly respond to allegations, and instead 
hides behind a Melbourne public relations firm to handle any inquiries.

ACM is a fully owned subsidiary of giant US corporation Wackenhut, which 
holds tens of thousands of prisoners behind bars world-wide. It operates 42 
prisons in the USA and has private prisons in Puerto Rico, England and New 
Zealand. 

Wackenhut works closely with the FBI and CIA and this year became the first 
private prison operator to take over a federal prison, a facility that 
houses many of the 25,000 undocumented immigrants in the US.

Eleven Wackenhut guards are currently awaiting trial on charges of bashing 
and raping women at its Travis County Community Justice Centre in Texas.

This is the company that in Australia runs prisons in NSW, Qld and 
Victoria, plus the Woomera and Villawood detention centres.

It is the nature of the contract the Federal Government signed with ACM 
that has directly led to the horrendous situation now being revealed: when 
the Government receives reports that the Woomera centre is operating 
smoothly, ACM receives bonus "incentive" payments from the Government; when 
negative reports are received, a financial penalty is incurred.

For example, ACM is liable to a fine of $10,000 for each breakout that 
occurs, such as the breakout in August this year.

However, instead of heeding the refugees' pleas for more humane and 
bearable living conditions, ACM, with Ruddock's blessing, introduced 
extreme new security measures to prevent breakouts that have made the 
detention centres more torturous and inhospitable than ever.

For each incident of personal harm reported, such as assault, rape, 
suicide, self-harm, or failure to deal with such an incident appropriately, 
ACM again pays a fine. In the current case of child sexual assault it could 
be up to $20,000.

This is based on the ludicrous assumption that the threat of financial 
penalty would lead a transnational corporation to provide a safe and secure 
environment for the people in its care.

Indeed, it is completely farcical that the Government expected a profit-
hungry corporation to report penalty-inducing incidents in the first place.

Instead, what it has lead to is an atmosphere of fear and secrecy inside 
the centre: where staff are threatened, harassed and intimidated; documents 
are forged or destroyed; and inmates suffer in silence, fearing 
victimisation and retribution.

Philip Ruddock, as Immigration Minister is ultimately responsible for the 
appalling treatment of refugees in Australia.

It was legislation introduced by his racist government that built these 
camps, and filled them with those whose only crime was wanting to escape 
from religious or political persecution and possibly death.

Prisoners at Woomera, as in the other refugee camps, have been incarcerated 
without charge, without trial, without the ability to access the legal 
system to review the length or merit of their incarceration.

Australia's system of "mandatory and non-reviewable detention" keeps 
legitimate asylum seekers, including pregnant women, their children and 
babies, locked behind razor wire in concentration camps in the desert.

Ruddock has tried to calm criticism of the camps by announcing a Federal 
Government inquiry.

While the terms of reference for the inquiry have not yet been finalised, 
the government has already indicated that it will only deal with "child 
abuse reporting procedures".

The inquiry will be conducted behind closed doors, and the decision on 
whether to release the findings will be left up to John Howard and his 
Cabinet.

What is needed is a full judicial inquiry into the whole private prison and 
detention system in Australia. We need to ask:

How is it that companies that have been found criminally negligent and 
guilty of human rights abuses overseas are still allowed to tender for, and 
operate detention centres in Australia?

More importantly, how do we allow such inhumane treatment of refugees in 
our country?

When the findings of the inquiry are published, State and Federal 
Government Ministers whose policies have allowed mistreatment, injury and 
death of prisoners in the hands of private corporations need to be held 
accountable.

The Victorian Labor Government made a critical move in October when it 
wrested control of the Metropolitan Women's Correctional Centre at Deer 
Park from private operators.

It cancelled the operator's 20-year contract because it recognised that the 
duty of care it held to those women could not be fulfilled by private 
enterprise.

It was a first vital step in the urgent reform needed in the prison system 
in Australia, and public pressure must be maintained to ensure other 
governments follow suit.

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