[Note by LE: We invited thefrollickingmole, a contributor at The Tizona Group, to write a post for us about his experiences as a officer at a detention centre after the discussion he initiated on the Marcus Einfeld thread.]
I was a detention officer from around 1998 through to 2002 at Port Hedland. This coincided with the largest influx of boat people seen since the Vietnam era.
When I was in training we had the first and second boatloads of Afghanis arrive. The majority of the center’s occupants were Chinese with a wide variety of others. The numbers held at that time as somewhere around 300, possibly less.
Part way through our training we saw a breakout of some detainees due for deportation. They overpowered 2 officers and tied them up. Quite stressful for the officers involved, and rather sobering for us involved in training. (6 weeks training from memory).
We were the last training group (30 or so) to run for the next year and a half, when detainees (usually referred to as residents by staff) rose to over 900 at times.
By the time I left 4 years later there were about 5 left from my training group; the rest had burnt out or quit.
The image most people have of the centers is of the big fences. When I started, the fencing consisted of 2 sets of chain link fencing topped with 3 strand barbed wire, not much different to tennis court fencing; this was upgraded after a number of breakouts and a couple of mass walkouts. In addition there was no internal fencing at all and no restrictions on detainees’ movements (although we did keep single men out of the family blocks as much as possible).
The increase in fencing was as a result of incidents, not a ratcheting up of pressure on detainees. In particular internal fencing was implemented to limit the speed at which incidents could escalate, however it did add to the prison atmosphere later arrivals disliked.
I was a terrible officer and rather clueless for my first year on the job. Some people learnt quicker, others never did. Great mounts of time are spent de-escalating incidents, often between detainees. Unfortunately racism isn’t only a “white” problem, as many groups considered others “unclean” or open to abuse. We started by assigning people rooms, but in the end it was much easier to allow then to pick their own. Iranians in particular had an unreasoning hatred of our Africans.
Here’s a few details which I’ve never seen touched on by the media. A couple were kept quiet for obvious reasons.
There was one particular section of the centre known as the “departure lounge”. It was for people who had been screened out of the refugee system by advice received from Australia’s intelligence community. They were specifically excluded from making any claims at all. This was a depressing block to work in; the detainees weren’t allowed any contact with the outside at all beyond their exercise yard, no TV, no radio, nothing.
Officers weren’t told the reasons these people had been singled out, however there is one group I am fairly certain about. That was a unit of about 15 Afghanis. It was fairly obvious they were a military unit. My guess after spending quite some time with them was they scored big on an operation (they were anti-Taliban) and decided that was their opportunity to leave the fighting behind. So I didn’t consider them a terrorist threat at all. The departure lounge was depressing as no-one, detainees or staff knew what was being done with these blokes. One of the hangings I attended (unsuccessful) was in this block, and another detainee nearly starved himself to death (it was fortunate I checked his paperwork and followed up as he had caused himself internal injuries he was that far along) in this block.
I believe it was another officer who went semi public/contacted a lawyer, for these chaps and eventually got changes to happen. I thought at the time he had been irresponsible, however now I believe it was the right thing to do.
The block (Juliet) was visited by politicians shortly after who made a big fuss about it, but it was an officer operating under his own conscience who got the change happening. When I left I believe nearly every resident who had been in Juliet had either been successful in their asylum claim, or deported.
Another area not reported to the best of my knowledge was the boatload of Indonesian Christians we received. This occurred during the time of the heightened tensions between Indonesia and Australia over East Timor’s independence. A small group of officers were assigned to look after them in ‘India’ block in an attempt to keep it as quiet as possible. From memory the majority were from Aceh, a hot spot for Muslim/Christian violence. Not one word leaked out to the media, and to the best of my knowledge all were resettled as quietly as possible. It may have led to a small war if Australia had been seen to be accepting these people and destabilizing Indonesia at the same time we were assisting in separating East Timor from Indonesia.
Another weakness of the Australian system is its appeal as a source of funding for some rather nasty organizations. A case in point was the Sri Lankan Tamils. Almost without exception they were young men, sent by the Tamil Tigers military to provide funding for further operations. Pretty well every one of them was hard working, friendly and quite nice blokes so this is not a slur on them personally. However the Tamil movement paid for, and sent them over as an investment. These boys were expected to send funds back to the Tamil movement, and if they had any second thoughts, their families were effectively hostages. That’s a downside to immigration protection I haven’t seen acknowledged by any refugee advocate, though many profess to be well informed. The doing of a good deed (offering protection) has been helping fund a guerrilla movement which causes much suffering.
Another topic harped on by the media. In general visitors were allowed for 4 hours a day at PH. However if we were short staffed (deliberately by upper management) it became extremely difficult to manage. If a security incident occurred (called a CERT 1) visitors would be bundled out with little explanation. In addition many visitors were turned away because detainees didn’t want to see them. The detainee would then claim he hadn’t been told they were there, thus generating a bit more drama and (hopefully) publicity.
I will touch on the conduct of certain of the visitors. Nearly every group of uni ladies that visited ended up screwing a detainee in the visitor’s yard. You weren’t ‘fooling the man’. We just left you at it as long as you were reasonably subtle about it. I still think you were naive and stupid, but that’s all. In addition smuggling drugs in is so extraordinarily stupid I shouldn’t have to mention it, but it still happened.
I’m singling out the ABC for odium on this issue. There is a group calling themselves “project safecom” which is basically one crank and a website. The ABC used this man as a source of stories with regard to detention issues, printing and reporting any allegation he cared to make. This allowed them the luxury of a ‘cut out’ so when stories were unreliable it was the source’s fault not theirs.
They were never reporters but advocates. They saw fit to send up a media crew to cover a protest by 15 individuals, but never panned the camera back to show how few were there. If we had a riot, the ABC was the first organization to be called. When we finally obtained the ability to switch off the phones remotely, residents just phoned before the riot started instead.
I will never believe any story by the ABC any longer; it’s damaged goods for me. I’ve been present at incidents reported on the ABC and it’s been 99% lies or propaganda.
There were two types of families, those who genuinely loved and protected their children, and those who used them. The vast majority of parents looked after their kids, and detainees did the right thing by them as well. However there was a small minority that sought to use their kids as tools.
One family in particular was involved in a major riot. During this riot one of our pregnant female officers was struck, and lost her child, shattering her mentally. Mum was breaking up pavers, the 2 younger kids were running them forward, and dad and the 2 oldest boys were throwing them. A nice day’s outing.
The active rioters were rounded up and placed in lockdown. That was when the manipulation and using of the kids started. The parents refused to allow the kids to be separated and placed with another family, therefore keeping the whole family in lockdown. Management were left with the option of either releasing them as a group or keeping them locked down as a group. Management chose to keep them locked down, for which they were criticized by pollies again.
This same family was involved in multiple incidents, usually by dad sending the kids off to smash/damage things. That was a challenge to deal with, and I was amused to note the same family receiving a lot of “poor victim” coverage in a book which was released.
Another incident was the witnessed molestation of a small girl. The father refused to lay charges, and it was my strong belief he was pimping her out. As the family refused to lay charges the matter was dropped.
Internal discipline inside Port Hedland
I have had the advantage of seeing very good management and some of the worst.
However when I was seeing the good management, I didn’t realize how effective it was till it was gone. In fact I thought it was unjust and overly harsh, but it saved massive amounts of suffering, both by officers and detainees.
The standard response for an act of violence or vandalism was a week in the “chokey”. Chokey was a small constantly lit high security room located near the control room. Residents in chokey weren’t allowed visitors, phone calls (except lawyers), and spent the remaining 23 hours out of 24 in the room. It was unpleasant; detainees hated it.
It didn’t matter if the window breaking (the most common damage) was in response to bad news, a justified complaint or malicious, a week in chokey was the response. That’s why I originally thought it was overly harsh.
Boy was I wrong. We lost the 2 managers who had enforced this discipline and replaced them with a revolving door of clowns and fuckwits. They tried appeasement to control the troublemakers.
Some examples: A group of Iranian thugs decided they wanted to pinch the TVs from the common rooms (2 in each block) and place them in their own. This left the detainees behaving responsibly with no TVs. Management let them keep them and brought more each time they were stolen/broken.
Fire alarms were deliberately disabled as they went off when people smoked in their rooms. Toothpaste was squirted into sensors and the sensors were torn from ceilings. Nothing was done.
Windows were smashed regularly. This led to the central air con for the block being unable to cool the block effectively, causing discomfort to detainees. Nothing was done, other than to ask the detainee why they had done it, and what they could be given so it didn’t happen again.
All this culminated in a fairly obvious way. Detainees who were well-behaved got less than troublemakers. I actually had reasonable detainees apologize to me for what they had done or were about to do, as they learnt that the only way to get something was to act negatively. We went from having random incidents occasionally with individuals, to having large scale vandalism and violence by hundreds of detainees at a time.
Management taught them to act like that.
Australasian Correctional Management was the worst organized/run company in Australia. However I will accuse the LMHU of being firmly in bed with them to the detriment of employees.
We raised a large log of claims which we attempted to place before the LMHU. They refused to assist as they didn’t have one of their people near Port Hedland. They had many paying members but refused to assist us. We contacted the AWU who successfully fought and won our log of claims in the Industrial Relations Commission. The commissioner was absolutely scathing of ACM’s conduct and made a number of orders.
The LMHU sued to have this overturned as the AWU wasn’t our official union. They won and never followed up the log of claims, many of which would have seen improvements for both staff and detainees.
Staff behaviour was generally good. Port Hedland was run and staffed by detention officers, with a completely different culture from prisons. Bad officers were weeded out pretty quick, with only a few “care bears” (soft officers) the only cause for concern.
I know of at least one escape facilitated by a female “care bear” officer who had allowed herself to be seduced by a male detainee. In addition to that we had one kitchen staff member and a male officer who both quit, then carried on relationships with detainees they had become attracted to. I consider that appropriate (in that the staff members quite before they entered into a relationship).
None of the people I went through training with were thugs. There were few at PH, and again they were weeded out/forced out pretty quickly.
However, a couple of the sites to which I was seconded were extremely badly staffed. ACM got permission to use prison staff as detention officers (Ruddock’s biggest mistake). 90% of them were absolutely terrible at dealing with detainees without treating them like criminals. We managed to keep long term detainees quiet and (reasonably) content for years at a time. Due to the piggish, arrogant and at times brutal mistreatment of detainees at prison-staffed centers, they had major riots and disturbances within 6 months.
A little example: I was seconded to Curtin detention centre for 6 weeks. I saw men crying in the dirt due to lack of support from staff/management. On one occasion I was manning the gate when a delegation approached me. There was a man who spoke English well, and one of the older well-respected men in the compound. The interpreter explained the older man had only received some paperwork a day ago and it had to be sent off today. I asked permission to look, and saw it was an application for his appeal, which had been sent the day before, despite his lawyer having had it for over 2 weeks. His lawyer should have been shot for this. I asked the (prisons) supervisor for relief while I got this sorted and sent. It was refused.
I explained that by spending 5 minutes sorting this I would save a large amount of trouble later on, as the old fellow was well liked and respected. Again I was refused.
I eventually told him to get fucked and went and sent the fax myself, only to have him front up and take a swing at me that night at the guard’s quarters. However, I saw no better example of their mindset, they’d rather fuck someone around and cause a great deal of grief for detainees (and officers, when the riot started) than do the right thing and defuse the situation.
Finally, what do I think of the directions of the Immigration debate?
This will shock many, but Ruddock did the most humane thing in the world.
- He stopped the boats.
- He stopped more SIEVXs.
- He stopped the trafficking of people by criminal gangs.
- He stopped people being thrown overboard mid-voyage (not kids, this was murders)
- He stopped the criteria for refugee protection being who could pay a smuggler.
I sent a submission to the new immigration minister when it was called for last year, offering advice and answers to any questions he and his staff might have on immigration detention issues. I received back a terse reply along the lines of “your experiences are out of date and irrelevant and won’t be considered.”
I have great confidence the new minister has already signaled to smugglers that their business is back open. When this leads to deaths, it will be as a result of people who are acting with the best of intentions to prevent a number of smaller evils (mandatory detention) which are easily visible, while not being aware of the much greater evils they are helping facilitate.
The single greatest stopper of the boats wasn’t the excision of parts of Australia or the Pacific Solution. It was the introduction of the temporary protection visa. Mr Sidotis’ Evans’ first action as immigration minister was to reverse that decision. In addition he has overturned a couple of other minor deterrents the only function of which was to prevent failed asylum seekers from re-entering Australia on a legal visa and re-applying.
I can only pray he can sleep when the next SEIVX comes to grief. There is a direct line between doing what appears to be right, and causing the deaths of people.
If anyone has specific questions about incidents/rumors they’d like clarification on please put them in comments. My memory is a little hazy on many items, but I will do my best to answer as truthfully as I can.
[LE: minor update – “inappropriate” replaced by “appropriate” and clarification re relationships between detainees and staff members.
Second update: Name of minister corrected in response to Andrew Bartlett’s comments.]