‘I cannot breathe’: Violence, excessive force plagues immigration detention
By Charlotte Grieve
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“I cannot breathe, boys, please,” Joseph Hanna pleaded with the guards holding him to the ground.
Moments earlier, he had been approached by the six guards from Serco’s Emergency Response Team – a specialist unit allowed to use force as a last resort against people held in immigration detention.
The officers told Hanna he would be moved from Sydney’s Villawood to a centre in Perth, and instructed him to stay still.
CCTV and body camera footage from the incident on February 10, 2021, detailed in a confidential Australian Human Rights Commission report obtained by this masthead, shows Hanna responded “thank you boys” before reaching into his pocket for his phone.
Detainee Joseph Hanna after use of force by six Serco guards.
The officers quickly reacted by grabbing his hands and pushing his head down. Hanna became distressed, shouting “please, my back, I can’t breathe” before he was slammed to the ground.
The officers held him down, yelling “stop resisting”, but the commission found Hanna was not resisting. Instead, it described him shouting in pain: “What did I do? Tell me”.
The commission is yet to issue a final finding on the incident, but it provides another example of the reality of conditions in detention centres following an investigation by this masthead which has found police directly lobbying politicians to have visas cancelled, haphazard health policies and rampant drug use.
It comes as the federal government is scrambling to respond to a High Court decision that found keeping people in these centres indefinitely is illegal.
Serco and the government told the commission’s investigation into Hanna’s treatment that staffing shortages during COVID-19 had resulted in breaches of its safety policies.
Interviews with dozens of current and former guards and detainees reveal a different picture, with many claiming understaffing is entrenched leading to violence, allegations of sexual assault and an illegal drug trade, that puts both detainees and staff at risk. After the incident reviewed by the commission, Hanna, from Lebanon, was cuffed, patted down and left in a room alone. He left with a black eye, blurred vision and cuts on his forehead and knee.
UN special rapporteur on torture Alice Edwards says Labor is responsible for Australia’s record on “inhumane” refugee policy.Credit: Cordula Treml
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Alice Edwards said the conditions detailed in this masthead’s investigation, including the death of detainee Moses Kellie in 2019 after a failure to administer his medication, were “totally unacceptable” and should prompt a review of government contracts with Serco and International Health and Medical Services.
“From the terrible death of Mr Kellie, through to widespread availability of drugs, in immigration detention, they are alarm bells,” she said.
“A full investigation, including how these contractors either facilitate these problems, or are not robust enough to be able to respond to them, would be really important.
“People in companies and governments need to be accountable for such things. Accountability means people can’t get away with essentially forgetting about someone in detention.”
Edwards said the High Court ruling should be an opportunity for the government to reset its approach to immigration detention rather than “circumvent” the ruling by “setting people up to fail” through unrealistic visa conditions.
“It’s not just those people who have been released, indefinite detention is illegal now,” she said. “The government should embrace it, not see it as a threat [and] pause to see how Australia could do better.”
In a nondescript building on a quiet street in Canberra’s industrial zone, Fyshwick, multinational corporate Serco trains its Emergency Response Team (ERT) guards.
Phones are banned and attendees must sign confidentiality agreements to take part in the training, where fitness is tested and guards are taught to respond to critical incidents such as controlling riots.
Attendees learn how to use spit-hoods, handcuffs and body belts – to restrain detainees who are violent, or being transferred from one centre to another.
“It’s all got to be secret squirrel stuff,” says one guard who completed the training, but left the company in 2022. “If you don’t keep your skills up, your personal fitness up, you get kicked off the team.”
Yet six ERT guards told this masthead that the training had failed to prepare them for the reality of the job. Speaking anonymously due to confidentiality agreements, they blamed a profit-driven culture (Serco’s 10-year $4.6 billion contract for running the centres expires next year) for an environment where there were routinely too few staff to perform the job safely.
“Serco is a service company… The biggest costs of the business are wages. What can you do to cut down on wages and your biggest cost? Well, you cut corners. You’re supposed to have three officers doing a task, you cut it down and make it two, or one, and that way you’ve made money,” one guard said.
The ERT officers also enforce the Psychological Safety Program – introduced around 2010 after a spate of refugee suicides in Serco facilities – where detainees at risk of self-harm must be closely watched.
“They’re supposed to be [closely watched] so they don’t find a razor blade somewhere and start slashing themselves up,” another guard said. “You’re supposed to have two, normally Serco have one. This is very, very common.”
There are inherent risks in running the centres and internal Serco documents, obtained by this masthead, show that the company certainly understands major incidents could affect both its bottom line and its reputation.
A “catastrophic” incident is defined as involving a death or multiple people injured. That could, the documents note, cost Serco more than $20 million, have a “severe impact” on the company’s reputation and result in “major media headlines” or “parliamentary intervention”.
In these situations, Serco undertakes a “corrective action plan” and senior management are informed, according to the documents.
In contrast, a ‘minor’ incident, where people in their care require medical attention would have only a “slight impact” on reputation, resulting in mentions in suburban newspapers or local radio stations. For these incidents, management notifications are kept within the immediate business areas.
Hanna has been held in immigration detention since 2019, after his visa was mandatorily cancelled following a four-year prison sentence for indecent assault. His experience with violence in immigration detention is not isolated.
A spokesperson for Serco said in a statement the safety and wellbeing of all detainees in their care was of paramount importance to the company.
“We are strongly committed to providing a safe and secure environment for detainees, employees and visitors. Our employees work incredibly hard to ensure this, often under difficult circumstances,” they said.
Somali refugee Ahmed Sherif spent seven years in immigration detention, after serving prison time for drug offences. He claims violence is common across all the centres, including excessive violence by guards, which resulted in wrists broken in handcuffs.
Ahmed Sherif was attacked while in immigration detention centres and required extensive surgeries.
Sherif says he was attacked without reason twice by inmates – once so severely he ended up in hospital for months, requiring facial surgery. He claims his request for protection before the attack was ignored.
When the Albanese government came into power, Sherif was released– along with a number of long-term detainees who were assessed as not posing a risk to the safety of the Australian community.
While Hanna and Sherif were convicted of crimes, another detainee in MITA – Amjad Hussain – was detained for years without conviction.
Hussain was charged with sexual assault in May 2018 over allegations made by a passenger in his taxi. He ignored police advice to plead guilty, and says he was taken into immigration detention on the day he was charged.
Hussain was detained in a high-security compound, with others who had served prison time for murder, rape and other serious crimes. “I’ve never been handcuffed in my life. Why did they not put me with other refugees?”
During this time, he says he was raped several times, and witnessed an open drug trade, with cannabis and methamphetamines easily accessible. “If you go into MITA, everyone is doing drugs. Everyone. I saw this with my own eyes,” he says.
Hussain filed a number of complaints to Serco during his detention, over missed medical appointments or his “mentally disturbed” roommate who openly took drugs in their room. These complaints went nowhere, Hussain said.
Eventually, on February 21, 2021, a Melbourne magistrate found Hussain not guilty of all charges and ordered the police to pay costs.
Despite this, Hussain remained detained in MITA until January this year. He now lives in a flat in Jacana, but his working rights have not been reinstated. He is still traumatised by his time in MITA.
“It was a horrible place,” he says. “They cancelled my visa for no reason, they locked me for no reason. I’ve never heard this in Australian history.”
Allegations of understaffing at detention centres have swirled since the beginning of Serco’s current contract.
Paul Brady worked as a mental health specialist at Serco’s Christmas Island facility in 2013. He said understaffing was rife at that time.
Brady observed detainees who slashed their arms, or told social workers they wanted to end their lives. “They had to be under 24/7 watch, staff one-to-one with them all day,” he said. “That definitely never happened in any way, shape or form.”
Brady reported the understaffing and “totally inadequate training” to Serco management, but quickly realised no action would be taken. “They were aware of the shortfalls in the system,” he said.
A current guard on Christmas Island said while conditions had improved, staffing levels remained untenable, with violent behaviour from detainees a common occurrence.
They said rules requiring guards to travel in pairs, for safety or to protect against false allegations, were routinely not met. “I’ve had urine thrown at me. I’ve been spat on. And I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Brady quit his role more than a decade ago yet still suffers PTSD from his time there. He said lack of care towards detainees has plagued his mind.
Australian-born Edwards is working on a report that will consider international guidelines for staff-to-detainee ratios in detention centres and prisons.
“Understaffing is a huge problem in many places,” she said. “People in detention, regardless of the reason why they’re there need to be treated humanely, they need to be treated with dignity, they need to have their rights respected.”
In addition to rights of detainees, Edwards said detention centres were workplaces where staff needed to be protected too.
“If the conditions are poor, the relations between staff and detainees deteriorate. It’s hard to maintain an open and positive attitude if you’re every day in a place that is not following the rules,” she said.
In Hanna’s case, the preliminary commission view is that his rights have been breached and the department and Serco have “failed to create a safe place of detention”.
The department “uses coercive powers to hold vulnerable detainees against their will” and therefore has a positive duty to prevent harm from occurring, it said in its preliminary report.
“In this instance, the department failed to adhere to its own internal policies and care plan for Mr Hanna, and in my preliminary view breached human rights standards.”
If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
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