Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster, says Antony Loewenstein.
Imprisoning immigrants is good for business. In the US it’s common for lobbyists hired by leading prison companies to magically convince officials to write legislation that benefits their bottom line.
US magazine The Nation revealed in June 2013 that the massive corporation Geo Group had used the firm Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on ‘issues related to comprehensive immigration reform’. It’s obvious why: billions of dollars are there for the taking with bi-partisan support for locking up thousands of undocumented migrants.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the collusion between big business and government are the clauses inserted into contracts that ensure people remain behind bars. In 2012, a letter to 48 state governors from the country’s biggest for-profit private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to purchase and run public state prisons. However, the deal required the states to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing 90-per-cent occupancy during the period. The states refused to accept this lousy deal, but in Arizona three privately run prisons require a 100-per-cent occupancy or fines are incurred. This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.
The past 30 years have seen a global trend towards outsourcing prisons, detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals and a range of other essential services. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’, major political parties of the centre-left and centre-right have rushed to embrace the least transparent companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater and others.
Politicians are seduced by the idea. Lavishly appointed trips organized by the contractor help to convince them that the state has no business managing public services. Democracy has suffered; services have not improved.
The problem is particularly acute in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a desert camp for asylum-seekers, in the remote West. Around 1,000 men were warehoused there; Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans and others. British transnational Serco, which runs all of Australia’s detention centres, managed the place with ruthless efficiency. Australia has the dubious honour of being one of the few nations in the world that has outsourced its entire refugee network to private contractors.
I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, spoke good English and was already knowledgeable about Australia after more than 18 months locked up in mandatory detention. He was warm, funny and inquisitive. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum – thousands of Tamils have arrived on Australian shores since the brutal end of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 – and he did not know when he might be released into the community or forcibly returned to his unsafe homeland.
Why was Yugan locked up for so long in a high-security prison environment? Luckily, his story ended well. Granted a protection visa a few weeks after we met, he now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was adapting well to his new life. He regularly visited asylum-seekers who remained in detention, continued to campaign for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public rallies calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.
Not every story ends like this, of course. There are high incidences of self-harm, with many asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years and/or returned to unsafe countries. Post-release, many suffer mental trauma due to the extended time away from normal life.
The quest for profit can aggravate poor conditions in detention. When I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower, they detailed the corporation hierarchy’s contempt for spending appropriate funds on support for staff or asylum-seekers in their care. Countless guards told me that they were suffering mental trauma after receiving little or no appropriate training before being thrust into remote centres alongside fragile refugees. The whistleblower explained that ‘there is no care about conditions [in detention], such as people sitting or lying in shit in tents, but it’s all about whether the right forms are filled in’.
Privatization lies at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). By 2013, that figure ballooned to over AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion) though the exact figures are not known, such is the deliberate obfuscation of the contractual agreement (‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements are the antithesis of transparent democracy).
The new conservative government of Tony Abbott has every intention of maintaining the outsourcing agenda and is expanding secretive camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Australia’s border policy is neo-colonialism with a cheque in one hand and a stick in the other.
Conditions in offshore detention are said to be even worse. A former detention manager on Manus Island told TV station SBS in July 2013, ‘in Australia, the facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.’
Of course, this is the neoliberal model, applied globally, so we should not be too surprised at the results. Despite the troubled records of Serco and G4S in Britain and beyond, successive Australian leaders are seduced by the concept of ‘efficiency’ and seem willing to outsource their own responsibility to firms that rarely exercise any of their own. It’s a recipe for human rights disasters.
In Britain, both Serco and G4S are currently being investigated by the country’s Serious Fraud Office for allegedly charging for tagging criminals who were imprisoned, dead or did not exist. The contracts were worth millions and Serco’s chief executive resigned.
Such news should disqualify the firms from being able to bid on other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to run for future work, including probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns roughly 10 per cent of its annual revenue from British government contracts, while Serco receives 25 per cent of work from the British tax-payer.
The list of human rights abuses by both companies is long. It includes the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. The fact that a private company is paid to deport people using rough, physical restraint shows the woeful state of government responsibility for the most vulnerable.
It does not have to be this way. In the US, growing numbers of states – including those run by Republicans – are ditching a failed model of enriching private prison corporations, and are sentencing fewer people to long prison terms. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a start. Warehousing asylum-seekers is not reducing the number of desperate citizens globally searching for a better life and it only helps the bottom line of companies like Serco.
The New York Times editorialized in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should consider. However, Europe shouldn’t be idealized. Countries in the European Union, reflecting the continent’s rightward political shift, are hiring private detention centre companies to house asylum-seekers.
Ireland, Spain, Italy and France are already utilizing this failed approach and Greece, a nation with neo-Nazis in parliament, will be following shortly. The Greek Ministry of Public Order recently announced it would issue public tenders – designed for private security companies – to outsource six temporary detention facilities.
Treating refugees with respect, and releasing them into the community while their claims are processed, is a practical and humane way for states to behave towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We have a choice between becoming insecure ghetto-dwellers, with private corporations to hide our dirty secrets; or a truly globalized world with inspiring values.
Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World’.