Tales from the desert camps

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Getting work in Australian detention centres was once surprisingly easy. First, you sent your CV to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney and within a couple of days you got a call asking when you could start. No formal interview, just questions about how soon you could leave.

“Alarm bells should have been ringing,” says psychologist Lyn Bender about her recruitment in March 2002, “but I wasn’t picking it because ACM was a great employer.” The recruitment officer gave her the phone number of a woman who’d recently returned. “Call her,” he said, “if you want to know what it’s like.” Looking back now, Bender describes the phone call as bizarre. The woman talked endlessly about the uniforms, which sounded hideous, and food that sounded worse. She made no mention of the asylum seekers or ethical issues connected to their internment.

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In her dimly lit consultancy rooms lined with impressionist reproductions, Bender’s voice is so quiet sometimes I struggle to hear her words. A former Lifeline manager with experience working at the maximum‐security Port Phillip Prison, Bender says her interest in working with refugees was preconscious. “I had a sense it was a bit like volunteering for overseas service, overseas aid abroad. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, but ...”

Few friends or family showed much interest in her new job at Woomera. Perhaps because Bender had always been a bit of a loner and, at that stage, largely estranged from her conservative Jewish family. “I always felt like an outsider. When I went to university I joined the Rationalist Society. It wasn’t bagging religion; it was the only way I could express my despair at being dominated by the Holocaust.”

During the Second World War, Bender’s Polish father had no idea what was happening in his homeland. It was only when the survivors from Lowicz, his home town south of Warsaw, came to Australia that he found out that his family had been taken to the forest and shot soon after the invasion. “My father then shut himself away for several days; locked himself in his room,” Bender says. He never recovered.

One of her clients challenged her about the new job, calling it immoral and asked how she could work in such a place. “I was going to see what I could do,” she says. “I wasn’t going to support the system.” Ultimately, though, she didn’t have much time to think. She left Melbourne within the week.

On her arrival at Olympic Downs, Bender was already having second thoughts. Maybe it was something to do with the airport’s oppressive atmosphere, crowded with mine workers. Driving through the desert, Bender kept seeking more information. The officer who met her flight would only say, “Oh, you’ll find out. It was like I’d landed in a movie in some kind of redneck town.”

“Ican show you, if you like,” Barbara Rogalla moves away from the kitchen table, past a gemstone display and into a study piled with books. The ID tag she shows me is simple enough with her number, W3007, clearly marked in bold. Below her photo, there’s the name of the detention centre where she worked for three months in 2000, Woomera IRPC (Immigration Reception and Processing Centre). Then, there’s her name in smaller letters. She shows me the tag with a smile, as if it were an exotic curio from an earlier life.

When Rogalla first heard about the positions going at Woomera she said, “Nah, nah, no.” But after 18 months at the ACM‐run Melbourne Custody Centre, she was feeling stale. Besides, the money tempted her. After six weeks at the detention centre, a registered nurse came home with $10,000. Food, electricity, rent and transport were all included. Not a bad deal, even if it meant working 12‐hour shifts six days a week. But then again, long shifts aren’t so uncommon in mental health.

A nurse since 1976, Rogalla didn’t think the job at Woomera would be such a stretch. “I had worked in mental health where people had locked wards for security reasons, so that part of the set‐up wasn’t so foreign to me.”

There was something else, too. She liked the idea of returning to the desert. “A lot of people find the landscape rather daunting; I don’t. I really love the sand dunes when you travel over to Roxby Downs.” Central Australia, with its red sand stretching for kilometres, broken by low scrub, struck her as beautiful. She felt comfortable there.

The detention centre at Woomera was two months old when Rogalla started work there in January 2000. “That was my first six‐week contract, the second was in June. I arrived in the afternoon and the break‐out occurred later that evening.”

The first thing she saw coming around the bend from Roxby was a great big wire fence. This gave the outback a very “foreign” look. Then she saw the detainees. Before this, she’d had virtually no contact with Middle Eastern people. Here were men in caftans. She kept looking, then thinking: “I mustn’t stare. I mustn’t stare.” She laughs, remembering it now. 

“And there were some guys with long beards. The other thing I found was rather remarkable. They all had their numbers on in great big letters. After a few days I commented on the numbers and somebody said: ‘Their name is actually there as well.’ But you had to look very closely to see their names.”

Unlike Bender’s dimly lit suite, the home of her colleague Glenda Koutroulis is over‐ exposed in the stark midmorning sunshine. The walls are whitewashed, with details stencilled‐in. Two little dogs yap at her feet. When one hops onto her lap and licks her chin, she doesn’t blink.

Previous experience nursing in intensive care had left Koutroulis “fearless”, she tells me. She also had a PhD in sociology ‐ a volatile combination, you’d think, for the publicity‐shy detention services contractor. But no, like the others, her recruitment was sped up, rushed, urgent.

She started about the same time as Bender in 2002. During our conversation, she falls silent. Her eyes cloud over. Remembering her first impressions of the centre, she pauses for a long while: “I remember its remoteness and the physical structure, the angled lights looming over, resembling a jail. When I walked through, I had lots of hands gripping through the wire, eyes staring at me.”

She could hear the detainees saying: “Help me, Miss. Help me, Miss.”

“It was like ...” she stops speaking, “...a giant intensive‐care unit.”

What were your feelings then?

“I actually don’t know how I felt. I can’t identify a feeling. I can’t remember feeling frightened. If I felt anything, I was horrified.”

Such dire first impressions tend to be the norm among the former ACM staff I interviewed who worked in detention centres between 2000 and 2003. Many are still wrestling with the legacy of their employment. This is clear in their vivid, stream‐of‐ consciousness re‐creation of events and in their voices. “There is a reality of trauma that is hard to put in words,” says Bender. “Your language centre shuts down a little.”

Anthony Hamilton‐Smith, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) business manager at Woomera 2000‐2001, says he knows at least 15 people suffering from post‐traumatic stress disorder because of their work in immigration detention. Some have been told that they will never work again. A DIMIA employee since 1985, Hamilton‐Smith also went on stress leave after finishing his year‐ long contract at Woomera in May 2001. 

Another officer, now employed at an offshore centre, says that a colleague explained that while a number of people resigned after Woomera, the “resilient” ones have stayed on. Hamilton‐Smith agrees. Those who shut themselves off and said, “This isn’t my responsibility”, did fine; anyone who “cared” ended up having problems.

Between 2002 and 2003, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission held a series of public hearings in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane to investigate the issue of children in detention. The findings were published last year in a 900‐page report, A last resort? At the hearings, Commissioner Sev Ozdowski, who conducted the inquiry, wondered whether there were two groups working within the centres; those who, after a relatively short time, became the system’s harshest critics and others who considered it normal.

“To a large extent,” replied an ex‐DIMIA official who gave evidence on an anonymous basis, “I felt we could have achieved a lot more if there had been more respect for property and respect for the services we were trying to provide.” The witness then apologised, saying that he had lost his train of thought. “When I left Woomera I was forced to confront what had happened there and started to question my ethics.” Previously he had been “steeped” in his work. Post‐Woomera, he suffered a trauma and had counselling; before this, the official was “inwardly focused”.

“A part of the system?” Ozdowski asked.

“Correct, and trying to work within it, trying to do the very best within the parameters you had. When you can move outside those parameters, you wonder why the parameters were ever set.”

A former ACM operations manager, Allan Clifton, also gave evidence. He was not alone. Sitting beside him was a clinical psychologist from the University of Adelaide. There was something about the detention environment, Clifton said, that changed people. Clifton described a staff member still working in detention but heavily medicated on antidepressants. “He is stuck in this thing that he cannot get out of,” he said. “And I fear for the damage, the long‐term damage that’s [it’s] going to do to him.”

“Damage it creates for him,” Ozdowski said.

“It’s sad,” Clifton said. “It’s even sadder for the detainees.”

In February 1998, the Commonwealth outsourced the management of its four dedicated detention facilities to ACM ‐ a joint venture between the United States corrections giant Wackenhut and the Australian Thiess Pty Ltd that was already running prisons in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. The contract was expected to cost about $14 million and serve about 700 detainees (mainly compliance cases) at the Villawood, Maribyrnong, Perth and Port Hedland centres and any other centres opened after that date, according to a report by the Commonwealth Auditor‐General in 2004.

The numbers were much higher than expected. Between 2001 and 2002, for example, there were about 3000 “unauthorised boat arrivals”. The bill for onshore detention centres edged over $500 million.

In February 2004, the facilities were transferred to Group 4 Falck (later Global Solutions Limited). During ACM’s contract from November 1997 to February 2004, the centres were marred by unrest and a high incidence of self‐harm among detainees.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report compiled after visits to mainland Australian detention centres in May‐June 2002 highlighted an “alarming” level of self‐mutilation (including suicide attempts) among detainees. Moreover, their observations, the report claimed, were generally corroborated by DIMIA statistics. In the eight months between March 1, 2001 and October 30, 2001 there were 264 recorded incidents of self‐harm. Such rates were “appallingly high for people in the 26‐35 age range,” the report said. During the same period, 29 children and young people had reportedly self‐harmed.

Whether because of low staff levels, long shifts or problems linked to staff being employed on six‐week contracts ‐ the so‐called fifos (fly‐in, fly‐outs) ‐ the experience of working in the centres also proved challenging.

Yossi Berger, the Australian Workers Union’s national occupational health and safety director, carried out two inspections of Port Hedland in 2001 (before, he says, ACM vowed that the union would never be “let on site again”). He found that the Port Hedland centre manifested extremely high levels of human stress. Not only did the officers have to deal with the detainees’ complex demands, there was the constant threat of “catastrophic” violence. “Some DOs [detention officers] are clinically traumatised,” Berger noted in his report.

But while the officers were “fatigued, poorly trained, at times distressed and abused”, they were “nevertheless surprisingly loyal to the job” and frequently worked more than 18‐hour days. “The resulting level of fatigue and fitness for any work, let alone this kind of work, ought to be major concerns to ACM.”

When Clifton started at Woomera in May 2000, there were 80 staff and 1400 detainees. Bender says: “Because of the shifts and 24‐hour nature of it, you wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of officers in each compound. You might have two, or three at max. The officers had to enforce rules. You could see why they were frightened.”

Not surprising then, that officers occasionally buckled under the pressure. Graeme Hindmarsh, a Port Hedland officer, was convicted of what police reportedly described as a “cowardly” assault of a handcuffed 47‐year‐old Iranian in 2001. The ex‐prison guard and army warrant officer, who was on antidepressants at the time, “snapped” after he was recalled to manage an altercation after a 14‐hour shift the day before.

Yet despite union campaigns to improve conditions, industrial action was relatively rare and few staff left early. This may be because, as ACM replied to the HREOC report, the inappropriate behaviour of a small minority did not detract from the commitment of the majority who treated detainees with respect. This view was endorsed by the 2001 Flood Report into conditions at Woomera, that noted “many dedicated Australians” worked in the area.

Many staff working in immigration detention felt that their working lives were so chaotic they felt as if they were in a war zone. Woomera psychologist Harold Bilboe describes the job: “It’s like having a patient coming into the hospital with a nail through the hand and you are giving him pethidine injections for pain, but you don’t remove the nail.”

By the end of Rogalla’s first contract in February 2000, the detainee population at Woomera had leapt from about 600 to 1400 people within weeks. “The boats just kept coming and coming and coming,” she says. When she returned in June, there was a “big contrast” in the place. There had been one riot, one fence had come down and detainees were throwing stones at staff cars. “The whole atmosphere had changed. Medicals and nurses were no longer allowed to go into the compound when there was a medical emergency.” There was a lot of talk about detainees making death threats against staff and a female officer had been taken hostage very briefly. “Things got pretty ugly after that,” she says.

On the day she returned in June, the fences were coming down one by one but people were acting as if nothing was happening, Rogalla says. What became known as the Woomera 2000 break‐out occurred that day. Hundreds of detainees escaped. “We were sitting there and the guy comes running through the medical centre saying, ‘Everything is normal, nothing is happening’. He went like this,” she waves her arms, “then charges out again.”

“That is the centre manager,” a nurse said.

“You’re having me on,” Rogalla said. Having just arrived that afternoon, she didn’t recognise the manager. “It was a bit comical. You’d hear, ‘Oh, the fence is coming down, what are we going to do?’ Each time there’d be maybe 50 or 100 people [leaving] and each time the fence would be put up again,” she says. “Then the next fence would go down.” 

The credibility of Australia’s detention system depends on its ability to prevent escapes and yet managers were saying, “Let them go”. “They had to, otherwise they would have attacked us,” says Rogalla. “There was no way the guards could have stopped them.” Within a few days, the Centre Emergency Response Team (CERT) teams “dressed up in riot gear” were flown in from ACM prisons.

The escapees, meanwhile, camped in the Woomera township, chanting: “We want freedom. We want freedom.” No shops were looted and no locals hurt by the detainees. “To my surprise,” admits Rogalla.

It started simply enough, as a rumour or idle talk in the clinic. “I never met this boy,” Rogalla says. “I just heard of it. Somebody said: ‘There’s his father. His father is farming him out for cigarettes.’ ” From January 2000, Woomera staff suspected one of the detainees was selling his son as a prostitute. It was an “open secret”, says Rogalla.

“It was like no other law applied in Woomera,” she says. “If you can imagine those films; you’re on a little island, Lord of the Flies ... There was this perception,” she says. “I’m not saying I was immune to that perception: that whatever happened in Woomera was just Woomera.”

On Rogalla’s return in June, a nurse said that the 12‐year‐old boy had been found outside a compound weeping and, it seemed from what he said, that his father had raped him. Not only that, the nurse said: “I’ve looked in his files and six pages are missing.”

“Telstra did really well out of me,” Rogalla recalls of calls to friends seeking advice. She remembers one yelling: “This is still Australia.” But many of the nurses at Woomera sincerely believed that since the centre was on federal property, state laws covering child abuse did not apply. One said: “It’s because we are on Commonwealth land.”

“This is bullshit,” Rogalla remembers she replied. “Having it off with children is just as illegal [here] as it is anywhere else. You can’t do it here, or anywhere else in Australia.”

“Ah, you want to hear what goes on in Curtin,” one said.

“Look,” Rogalla replied, “I don’t want to know about bloody Curtin. This is enough here.”

First thing on July 10, 2000, Rogalla phoned Victor Urdjenko, ACM manager of detention services and said she had concerns about ACM’s “legal position” regarding the alleged abuse. She said that company’s current policies did not effectively deal with the issue.

“What do you want?” he asked. 

“You have to do something to keep these children safe,” she said. He urged her to take it up with local ACM management and then asked her to report back.

By the time Rogalla turned up for her afternoon shift, the centre manager Jim Meakins had heard about the early morning call. He called an unscheduled meeting for the nursing staff and insisted other managers be present. Speaking in broad terms, he said that the indicators for post‐traumatic stress could mimic those of sexual abuse. “He did not convey enough detail to instruct us about clinical matters,” says Rogalla. “Yet he said enough to warn people off.”

Over the next two days, Rogalla was encouraged by ACM management to write a child‐protection policy, but this was outside her expertise. Following her supervisor’s advice, she phoned “child protection”. That evening, she was stopped from getting on to the bus: “I wasn’t allowed to leave the centre until the police had spoken to me.” She knew that within the detention environment it was a big thing “not to speak with any outsider” and thought she might have broken the law. Waiting for the police to arrive, some of the guards said: “Oh, Barbara, you worried about something, are you?”

When the Woomera policeman arrived he was friendly and polite. “Before we go any further,” Rogalla blurted out, “what are the chances I’m going to be arrested?”

“Absolutely none,” the policeman said. “Really? Do I need a lawyer?”

“No, no, we’re just following up on a report.” “Is that all?”

Her contract ended a few weeks later. In October, she wrote to the then Minister of Immigration, Philip Ruddock, among others, listing a range of concerns “including inadequate dental care, intimidation towards staff, possible bugging of phones by management”.

One of the letters was leaked to The Australian. This was a difficult time. Rogalla was thrust into the spotlight, largely against her will. Soon an inquiry headed by career diplomat Philip Flood was launched to investigate reporting procedures at Woomera, alongside the specific allegation of child abuse raised by Rogalla and her colleagues. “Flood was critical of the absence of an appropriate child‐protection policy,” she says. The one used, she says, came from ACM prisons and mainly dealt with obtaining physical evidence.

The report found that the failure to report the incident in the appropriate manner not only “contravened” contractural requirements as outlined by DIMIA (a finding supported by ACM), but also reflected a broader failure by management of not briefing staff on agreed policy in relation to child protection. 

Moreover, Flood found that it was “inexcusable” that the original March 13, 2000, report of the alleged abuse was not drawn to the attention of South Australia’s Family and Youth Services (FAYS) until November that year. The FAYS investigation eventually found that the alleged abuse could not be substantiated. The child was interviewed twice, once with an interpreter, once without, soon after the alleged abuse when he exhibited signs of distress.

“Confusion amongst staff about the cause of his distress resulted in false rumours and a basis for later misinterpretation,” FAYS concluded. “In subsequent interviews involving expert interviewers, the child consistently and repeated indicated that his distress that evening was not the result of any sexual abuse.”

Two things changed for the better as a result of the inquiry. First, an Independent Detention Advisory Group was set up ‐ a group that can visit centres at any time, without invitation ‐ and a policy covering children in immigration detention was put in place in August 2001. Both mean “greater public accountability” for government policy and increased supervision of what happens inside the centres.

“Initially I felt really weird for ages. I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “That’s why I worked in the outback for a while, because when I came back from Woomera and [was] talking to people, it was almost as if we weren’t speaking the same language anymore.”

Five years on, Rogalla is completing a PhD that looks at the way the lawful implementation of policy could lead to a point where immigration law undermines other basic law and children and adults are damaged as a result of their detention as “uninvited refugees”.

Two weeks into her contract at Woomera in 2002, Bender woke up in a panic. Opening her eyes, she saw the television and comfortable room, ex‐military, with its pleasant veranda, but she felt anxious. “I am guilty.” Her heart was beating so fast it felt as though it was bursting inside her chest, she said. “If I don’t do something, I’m guilty. I could be charged.”

Bender had grown up with stories of escape. Her father, as a 26‐year‐old, scraped together enough money to leave Poland with his brother and reach Australia. That was in late 1937 or early 1938. His family, he thought, would come later. Seventy‐five years later Bender woke in fright. Her eyes made out half‐shapes in the bedroom. “I’m in this safe place. But my soul is in complete danger. I’m becoming part of the machinery.” Words flooded her brain. She thought of Nuremberg, where saying you were following orders was no defence. Here she was earning money from this. “I’m becoming part of this horrific machine.” 

She sensed people checking her out when she was at work. There was always a “double process” going on, she says. Refugee advocates in town were wondering if she could be recruited ‐ not brainwashed or brought into the rebellion ‐ but if she was someone they could work with, while the asylum seekers were saying, “Is this psychologist any good?”, meaning, “Will she listen to us?”

Recollections of former detention‐centre staff are dominated by a sense of unreality but for Woomera employees it is even more pronounced. Not surprising when you remember that the town, according to tourism material, was closed to the outside world for most of its life. Until 1982, when it was derestricted, it was a “secret town”.

“From day to day, you felt cut off,” says Bender. “Even though I watched television, I mostly watched stories about Woomera. It was an all‐pervasive environment.” On a worker’s day off there was nothing to do apart from wander around the town. “It was like the rest of your life ceased,” she says.

She was not alone in this. Until May 2000, the detainees had no access to phones, newspapers or television. Following the June break‐out, a man who had been held since January suddenly asked Rogalla, “Why are you putting us here in the middle of the desert?” Before this, he had no idea where he was. The overwhelming sense of unreality was made more intense for the many staff who felt their core values, or sense of identity, were under attack.

Much has been made of the allegedly haphazard training of ACM detention‐centre staff ‐ so much so that a 2001 Government report included a summary of the training provided to new recruits. “All applicants for positions with ACM are psychologically tested,” it stated. “All staff are trained to look after detainees, to treat them with respect and to provide a humane environment.” Those moving from ACM’s correctional arm undergo a 24‐hour “bridging” course that supplements 240 hours of orientation and pre‐service training.

“I studied multiculturalism,” Rogalla recalls an officer telling her proudly.

“Multiculturalism?” she asked with interest. “What exactly do you learn? How did you study that?”

“Well,” the officer paused, “when you get a Muslim woman, you never make eye contact with them when you’re a bloke!

“What you do is look her right between the eyes and that way she doesn’t make eye contact, otherwise, she thinks you want to have it off with her.” Rogalla is laughing now. “Or her bloke might get a bit funny about it,” the officer finished. 

Yet none of the staff interviewed had any orientation about the specific needs of asylum seekers or women and children in a detention environment. The 2002 ACM code of conduct does not refer to either concern and makes no distinction between “prisoners/inmates/detainees”.

For Bender, the issue was not so much the lack of training but the system’s inability to respond to the needs of the often‐traumatised detainees. “Some of the set tasks were very much rubber‐stamp tasks.” She lists them: “They need a psychologist to tick off putting people in an isolation wing. Tick. They need a two‐minute observation and 15‐member High Risk Assessment Team [to care for suicidal or self‐harming detainees]. Tick.”

ACM was very proud of this system imported from its prisons, she recalls, because no one died. “You never let them out of your sight but you did nothing to reduce their self‐ harming desire,” Bender says. But while the professional’s signature was required to put the detainee in, the same person did not have the authority to have the person released. “It had to be approved by not one, but several managers.”

There is exasperation in her voice as she describes the situation. Abruptly, when telling the story, the perspective shifts. “You had to argue that they were safe. Of course they weren’t safe. It would be impossible to make that decision on your own. You’d ask for other options, especially for the children ...” Once Bender tried to have a boy of about 15 transferred to Woomera hospital, with no success. The management view was: “Put him in a cell, get a guarantee he won’t self‐harm, then we’ll get him out.” When the boy later threatened to self‐harm, he was returned to isolation, along with his father. “It was a Sophie’s Choice situation; it’s this, or nothing. If you don’t choose this, it will be worse,” says Bender.

Bender remembers one woman called a “model prisoner” by the staff, because of her behaviour. “She never complained; she’d been compliant and helped out in the medical centre. One day, the woman lost it and started screaming, getting angry and throwing things. She’d been waiting and waiting and maybe received an indication she wouldn’t be getting a visa, despite her partner being granted protection and living in Sydney. The woman was flexi‐cuffed and put in the cell. She was furious and upset. She couldn’t calm down.” Bender felt she had to play the game: “I was in the same position, pleading, being compliant, so they’d let her out.”

“This is upsetting her, she needs to be released,” Bender pleaded.

“No, she can’t go,” the manager replied. “Not until she stops being upset. It’s on your head if anything happens. Can you guarantee it?” 

The high‐security environment at Baxter IRPC shocked “Jackie” when she started work there as a nurse in 2003. “I can’t imagine being, or feeling, watched 24 hours a day and never being able to go somewhere and have a chat where someone wasn’t watching me.” A psychiatric and general nurse with training in midwifery, Jackie had nine stints at Curtin, Port Hedland, Baxter and Christmas Island between 2002 and 2003. (She spoke anonymously, fearing her future employment would be threatened otherwise.)

Jackie met a psychologist due to fly out later the day she arrived. After discovering they were of a “like mind” and all she needed to know (who she could speak to, who she couldn’t, what she could get away with) they agreed that it would be a good idea to resurrect the women’s group that had been running at Curtin.

After receiving funding from the centre manager, Jackie bought some fruit and food the women craved: spring onions, lemons, almonds and dates. Once the group got going, the female nurses and detainees took part in activities together. “It was great fun.” One urged her to get up onto her feet, “Come on, come on, Jackie.” So she, along with some Port Augusta nurses, got up to dance. How the women cheered. “It was like, even if you’re big and shake your bits, you can have a bit of a laugh.”

Then they saw the camera. Everybody froze. “I nearly died, thinking how the people in central command would have been really pissing themselves ...”

A pregnant detainee ‐ a woman she didn’t know well but someone who, she says, became an instant friend ‐ walked over to Jackie and took her Akubra. “She went and got a chair, stood on it and covered the camera, then said, “Now dance!”

From then on, whenever they met, someone would stand with a hat over the camera, even if it was only for a conversation, Jackie says, “because we didn’t want them looking at us”.

In the detention environment, groups quickly formed. Divisions developed between former prison guards and those employed specifically to work in detention. During its contract, ACM tried to shift from a model borrowed from prisons to a less authoritarian one. Rogalla says that during her second contract the company started recruiting officers specifically for the work. She recalls the two groups ‐ the former prison guards and detention officers eyeing each other suspiciously. “One thought they were better than the other,” she says.

But Bilboe, the Woomera psychologist, was disappointed to see that a move towards a “nicer” environment in late 2000 had dissipated by the end of 2001. By then, some of the asylum seekers had been detained for more than a year and were starting to exhibit what Bilboe calls “reactive behaviour”. 

To stop this, he says that ACM started recruiting hardline staff. “That’s when I started writing reports regarding concerns about some of the injuries detainees were presenting with following incidents [that] would leave ACM open to allegations of excessive use of force,” Bilboe says.

A former Woomera nurse recalls: “From the very beginning, 30 per cent of the officers were decent, good blokes. You’d see them with a child on their hips, doing the best that they could. Whenever clothing came in, you’d see them trying to get the women what they wanted. They were good blokes.”

The others who came from prison environments, she says, treated the detainees like prisoners and the little kids like dogs.

“On hot days, when it was up to 40 to 45 degrees, the little kids could only drink out of the tap. It took a long time for the water to cool, which meant they only had boiling water to drink. When the officers saw the children they’d shoo them away from the taps. The kids would be milling around and the officers had these big Eskies full of iced water, taunting the kids. I thought, ‘What bastards you are’. Sometimes, you’d hear the officers boasting of how during their night shift they’d ... There were four or maybe six gas lights in the compound, which lit it up like daylight,” says the nurse. Since the detainees didn’t have curtains on their dongas, they were forced to sleep with the light coming through the window. “They’d wait until they were asleep and [then] they’d go along with steel torches. They’d bang on the side of the dongas, and walk off, going back and forth to wake them up.”

Were the officers checking on them?

“No, they were just being bastards. They didn’t want them to sleep.”

Rogalla, also at Woomera at the time, cautions against a “false dichotomy” where some staff and management are seen as humane, others heartless. “The issue is government policy, not who the private contractor is or who the employees are at the present time.” Yet staff considered “inappropriate” managed to slip through, and ACM has acknowledged that it was difficult at times finding suitable staff. Another nurse recalls ACM recruiting 100 long‐term unemployed as detention officers at the newly opened Baxter centre in a bid to save money.

Between August 2000 and August 2003, while DIMIA extended and re‐negotiated its initial contract, ACM’s future was “uncertain”. “Because ACM could not guarantee employment beyond the end of the first extension period, it had difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff,” the National Auditor report notes. “This resulted in the employment of casual, or less experienced staff in some centres, with some DIMIA on‐site business managers reporting a consequent lower level of service delivery.” Nurses were either employed directly by ACM, or recruited through nursing agencies but Rogalla remembers a former cook with no formal qualifications in the area, who conducted psychiatric assessments of the Woomera detainees in 2000.

Towards the end of her second contract, Bender went into “the mess” at Woomera one evening to make herself a cup of coffee. She was working back. A group of 15 mostly male officers had settled at a table. She recalls that soon they were badmouthing the detainees. “Why do they bring their kids here?” they asked.

“None of us knows how we might be in their situation,” Bender said.

They started haranguing her: “What do you know?”

“You’re just a psychologist,” one said. “You come here for six weeks and then you go.” Bender realises her comments were provocative for these men, who were mostly in their 40s and 50s and had few options. “They were grassroots Aussies, country people,” she says, and rarely encountered anyone who wasn’t Australian or British outside the centre.

One of the officers supported her and said, “She’s got a point.”

The others were furious. Unlike Bender and some nurses who mixed with the detainees, the officers were tightly monitored. Some tried to befriend the detainees but this carried the risk of angering other officers, who saw them as being soft. “There was a double problem: management and being stuck there. And then the detainees acting out their feelings at them as perpetrators and attacking them verbally.”

Within a few hours of the exchange in the tearoom, the health manager rang Bender on the medical‐centre phone. “I’ve got to warn you,” she said, “the manager’s just told me.”

The operations manager called Bender into his office, where she was disciplined for “causing distress” to the officers. “They’re very stressed,” he said. “I don’t want them upset. It’s taken us a long time to help them cope.”

In her last week, Bender had to tell a woman suffering from depression that her husband had tried to kill himself, but people kept intruding. “I had to ring the telephone interpreting service ‐ a guard bursts in. I asked her to leave.” Each time she started speaking to the woman, the guard burst in again.

“This is a session,” Bender cried out. “How dare you interrupt.”

She’s losing it, management thought, and possibly feared that she would bring a stress claim. “When I arrived I was dubbed ‘quiet as a mouse’ by the health manager,” she says. “My style is to try to grasp what is going on; I became the mouse that roared by the end of it.” 

Bender was fired two days before the end of her contract. By then it was already too late. She had come through with her promise to the detainees and spoken to ABC Radio National about conditions in the centre. She was scared about being exposed but felt she had no other choice. “I made a snap decision,” she says. “It was a bit like sitting beside the pool and you surprise yourself by jumping in. It was cold.”

“A lot of the time, I felt very unvalued, as if I were in jail,” she says quietly. The strange thing is that inside the detention centre she felt she belonged. One of her friends, when asked how she was, said: “I think she is totally in her element.”

Something strange happened there. Unable to relate to the majority of officers, Bender felt at ease with the asylum seekers, sitting on the floor in their little rooms, drinking tea and sharing their stories. “I felt it was normal,” Bender says.

“I could relate to this ‐ these young men who were desperate about their families.” They were, in a sense, her father. They were her father as a young man. “There I was, sitting with these Iranians, Iraqis and Palestinians and feeling that they are my people,” she says. “I’m used to intense dark faces, making endless cups of tea, sitting around the table and you just talk and talk and talk.”

Her father rarely spoke about what had happened to his family. “It would seep, or be expelled, out of him like a forced breath,” she says. “It would emerge when looking at the few photos left: ‘See, I was always with my mother. See, I am holding her hand.’”

Out of a silence would come the memory of his failure to bring them out of Poland to safety. Occasionally he’d refer to his family in ways Bender didn’t fully understand. Once she asked how her paternal grandfather had died. With a wry smile, her father said, “From an earache”. He had been shot in the head. They were all shot, murdered with millions of other European Jews.

Much later, Bender understood her father’s enormous guilt that he had survived. “I picked up by osmosis and inference and absorption the sense of shame he carried,” she says. “He was very sad a lot of the time, with black moods and often with a short fuse.” Fearful that he would not survive financially, he was first a clothing‐shop proprietor and then invested in real estate. He had an endearing sense of humour. “There were glimmers inside him,” she says, “of a capacity to express love.” Her father was such a good man, she was told when he died, especially to the Lowiczers (the 30 or so survivors from his village now settled here) whom he helped selflessly.

All this came to her later, but at Woomera, among the detainees, she felt at home. “I believe that in times of great despair small gestures can sustain people,” she says. Whether bringing in batteries, or pens, or simply listening to their stories, she had to believe such gestures offered some comfort; if only to remind the asylum seekers that they were human beings, not numbers.

Note on sources: This report on based on interviews with the participants, official reports and documents.