Australian media finally starts to examine Serco

Well, it’s only taken a few years to seriously wonder how a British multinational, paid hundreds of millions annually, is so incompetently mismanaging immigration detention centres around Australia and Canberra is now paying them to build more facilities in remote locations.

The glories of privatisation. Can we now have a discussion about placing these semi-prisons of mental trauma back into public hands? Fat chance:

Today’s front-page Australian story:

The former manager of the Christmas Island detention centre wrote to his boss at Serco five months before last week’s riots, urging the company to hire more staff to tackle security and safety failures at the overcrowded facility.

The staffing proposal document written last October by then centre manager, Ray Wiley, urged Serco, which operates all the detention centres, to hire more personnel and “provide proactive intervention rather than reactive damage control”.

The document, obtained by The Australian, details chronic overcrowding at Christmas Island’s main detention centre, including 144 detainees housed in classrooms, 92 in storerooms, 30 in a visiting area and 240 in tents.

In his letter, Mr Wiley, who has since left Serco, claims the detention centre was “typically 15 staff short per day” and says “even if all posts were filled, we would struggle”.

“This in itself does not enable confidence in being able to manage the centre in a controlled and ordered manner, affording a safe environment for staff, clients and visitors to the centre,” he says.

After violent rioting last Thursday night in which parts of the centre were burned to the ground, the Immigration Department asked the Australian Federal Police to take over control of the facility from Serco, which has a $370 million a year contract to run Australia’s detention centres.

Julia Gillard warned yesterday that the asylum-seekers involved in the riots would not go unpunished, saying they should face criminal charges.

After taking charge of security at the problem-plagued centre, the AFP has switched on the electric fences and yesterday patrolled the compound with a tactical police dog to move detainees to their assigned areas.

Some detainees have been refusing to move to the main compounds from the burnt-out remains of the Aqua and Lilac compounds at the edge of the centre.

There are fears up to 20 escaped detainees are camping out in the jungle, eating robber crabs, and yesterday AFP operational commander Chris Lines acknowledged that an official head-count had not been completed. “What I can report is that it was another calm night at the centre, the third calm night in succession,” Deputy Superintendent Lines said.

Serco was reportedly fined more than $4m for contract breaches earlier this year. Rosters obtained by The Australian this month show that on some night shifts since November, there have been fewer than 10 guards in compounds holding about 1600 men.

The Immigration Department has acknowledged to this paper that it has, at different times, asked Serco to increase staff for the safe and secure running of the detention centre. Understaffing is partly a result of the accommodation shortage on Christmas Island: even if Serco could recruit large numbers of extra workers, there is nowhere for them to live. To address this, Serco has tried to recruit residents on the tiny territory. About 100 out of a population of about 1500 work for Serco.

Mr Wiley sent the staffing proposal document to Serco’s then Christmas Island cluster manager on behalf of the detention centre operations team. His employment ended in January after several incidents termed “abatements” that began in November the month after the staffing proposal document was written. “Abatements” are breaches of Serco’s contract with Immigration that attract a fine. They include breaches such as escapes or bureaucratic breaches such as failing to complete client management plans or promptly report incidents.

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