Queensland to hand human rights abuser Serco its first women’s prison

Southern Queensland Correctional Centre.

The Queensland state government has announced plans to turn the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC), run by notorious British company Serco, into a private women’s prison.

Critics say the prison will be the endpoint of a pipeline that takes homeless women and women with mental illness and dumps them in jail, keeping them there for profit.

Karen Fletcher interviewed Debbie Kilroy from women’s prisoner advocacy organisation Sisters Inside for Green Left Radio on community radio station 3CR about the proposal.

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Could you give us a rundown of what has happened?

Queensland Minister for Corrective Services Mark Ryan announced on July 3 the opening of 189 cells at Borallon Training and Correctional Centre and then added quietly that men would be moved out of the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre, near Gatton in the Lockyer Valley [more than 100 kilometres from the Brisbane CBD], into Borallon, and that SQCC would be opened as a women’s prison.

Was that a shock to Sisters Inside?

Any new prison is a shock, but we have had numerous conversations with the minister and the Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Martin about this.

We have opposed it behind the scenes and have been working to stop it. But it was the only option that Corrections had put to the minister and they said there were no other options.

We said there were plenty of options. The most important was to implement strategies to reduce the number of women in prison instead of just opening a new prison and increasing the number of women in prison.

But Corrections didn’t want any part of that. Of course they don’t; they are in the prison industry. They want to build more prisons. That’s their business.

This will be Serco’s first private women’s prison anywhere in the world. We know the horrific human rights abuses that Serco is known for in other prisons around the world.

It is horrifying to think that the most marginalised and disadvantaged women, particularly Aboriginal women, are going to be dumped out in Gatton, in absolute isolation in a prison run by Serco.

None of us will be able to get in there, our access will probably be stopped and they will hide behind commercial in confidence.

Serco is known for running immigration detention centres in Australia and for touting its services around the world. What can you tell us about Serco’s lobbying activities in Queensland?

Most people would never have heard of Serco because they just go about their business very quietly but it has tentacles like a spider web.

It is involved in nuclear plants, military bases; it manages the planes the Queen and other royals fly around in. It even runs public schools in parts of Britain and, of course, prisons.

Serco is getting bigger and bigger on the quiet and no one really knows about what it is doing.

In Australia, it lobbied for and got the call centre for [the National Disability Insurance Scheme]. It tendered for the Centrelink call centre. It tendered for the mega-prison and public housing in New South Wales.

Serco is out there and it is getting the contracts for just about everything.

It seems incredible that such a shadowy organisation, that not many people know much about, has such a huge public role and is taking over so many public functions, with responsibility for vulnerable people. In this case, the women’s prison will unfortunately have a very high percentage of Aboriginal women.

Yes, and this is the problem.

If we as a community, as a state, as a country, want to have prisons, they must be open, accountable and transparent, and they never are when private companies come in and run them.

We have to be able to hold the prison system accountable for the treatment of people we want to lock up and that courts sentence or remand.

The other problem is the number of mentally ill women in prison. More than 60% of women entering prison reported having a mental health disorder and 37% reported currently being on medication for a mental health disorder.

The number of open cases of mentally ill women in prison increased from about 85 last year to about 150 this year.

Women with serious mental health issues will be put in a private prison with no checks and balances and in absolute isolation. Most support services, and there are not many, that operate in the women’s prison now will not go to Gatton. Even state government services will not go to Gatton.

About 85% of women prisoners are primary care givers for their children and a lot of those children are under child protection orders.

We have a situation now where a court will order that the mother and child have contact, which means the Department of Child Safety must take the child to visit the mother in prison.

Even now they say they don’t have the resources to do it so the women don’t have that contact with their children. They will never see their children at Gatton. There is no public transport there.

So the women that this government obviously doesn’t care about will be just dumped out in the back blocks at Gatton.

People who work in the private prisons seem to work more slowly on remissions and parole, compared to the public prisons. It’s in the interests of the employer to keep people in prison. Do you think that business model will have an impact on the number of women in prison too?

Of course the numbers will continue to rise. Empty prison cells are like empty hospital beds — they get filled. That is the reality. If there are not enough prison cells, courts will look at other punishments and bail conditions to find a way that the person can be in the community safely.

The other problem is the evisceration of social services for decades under successive state and federal governments, so we have no available housing for someone on Newstart and most people are on Newstart when they come out of prison.

Newstart hasn’t been increased by the federal government for more than two decades.

We are just dumping our most vulnerable, impoverished, mentally ill, drug addicted, violated, black women in prison because the community doesn’t care.

I call on the community to please show some care. These are human beings and they should not just be dumped in a private prison under the management of Serco, which has a horrific track record of treatment of people in their prisons.

Serco runs an immigration detention facility in Britain, which has been racked by allegations of sexual assault of the women held there, including by employees of Serco. When they ran Christmas Island there were so many allegations of sexual assault that even Serco employees were blowing the whistle.

About 100 women went on hunger strike earlier this year in Britain to expose what Serco was doing to them. Queensland has a Labor government, predominantly run by women.

I could understand it if the Liberal National Party were in, but this is a Labor government.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk must step in and stop this decision. It must be overturned as a matter of urgency.

Women are going to prison not for substantive sentences but on remand, who haven’t been convicted of anything, or returned for minor infractions of parole. This has really boosted the numbers and caused the overcrowding problem that is used to justify this decision. What action could be taken to address that problem of putting women in prison who logically should not be there?

About 42% of women in prison are on remand and the numbers are going up. Soon half the women in prison will not have been sentenced and most will not be sentenced to imprisonment for their offence.

This is about poverty and homelessness and mental illness or the need for rehab or detox. This is the result of the fundamental failure of successive governments to provide social support in the community and the use of prison as the solution.

Governments don’t want to spend money on the people who need it most so they are just dumped in the prison system.

When someone goes to prison there is a cycle of return. We know that 74% of Aboriginal women who are now in prison, have been in prison before. Why are we opening another prison when we know it’s a fundamental failure?

Any business that had a 74% failure rate would start to do things differently. But we have successive governments pouring more and more millions of dollars down the failed throats of Corrective Services.

We need people to write to the Premier and the corrective services minister and ask why this decision has been made and why they are allowing women who need the support and protection in the community to be put into the hands of Serco.

The government must respond to letters so we need as many letters as possible.

[Sisters Inside's Annual conference Imagining Abolition will be held in Brisbane in November and is aimed at imagining and fighting for a world without prisons. More information here.]