Friday, February 04, 2011

WEEKEND READING: Woomera was worse, much worse than you imagine

My colleague Cathy Carey laid out the state of the detention centre in this groundbreaking account in The Sunday Age in 2007. It traumatised every human being who touched it.

I dug this out after reading Cathy's obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday.

She sent the detention centre article to me for an opinion before she submitted it.

I wrote back: "I clocked it at about 3,100 words, everyone in the right place, and
unputdownable. Congratulations"

Cathy Carey

Woomera: war victims of the zone


Sunday 25th of February 2007

The suffering of Woomera detention centre detainees is well known, but many of their guards and carers remain trapped in the nightmare, Catherine Carey reports.

Late one afternoon in January 2000, Allan Clifton headed up the Stuart Highway towards the Woomera detention centre. At dusk he drove through the main gates and pulled up opposite the principal compound.

A highly regarded officer with years of experience in public and private prisons, he was about to step into the role of operations manager at the centre, which had opened a month earlier and housed about 1400 people.

Woomera represented a change and a challenge. But his first impressions disturbed him.

"I saw the women and children and was told about the unaccompanied minors and the single men," he said. "I sensed the unease . . . There was no infrastructure. The gatehouse was a tent, the medical centre a shambles.

"Those people hadn't been charged with any crime other than being in Australian territorial waters. I looked at the kids, thinking about my own girls. I went to bed that night thinking, 'How am I going to do this?'"..

Eighteen months later, Clifton was suicidal. Two diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder had left him unfit for work and unable to participate in family life. Three years down the track, he feels he has still not fully recovered.

We now have some idea how internment in Australia's detention centres affected the mental health of asylum seekers.

Earlier this year, the NSW Supreme Court awarded $400,000 compensation to Shayan Badraie, an Iranian boy, for psychological damage as a result of detention in Woomera and Villawood.

But there is little awareness of the heavy toll it took on the guards, the administrators, the interpreters, kitchen staff, medical staff and others who kept the detention centres going.

Those interviewed for this story describe Woomera as a war zone, and many have been afflicted by the condition first identified in soldiers as shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Workers at Woomera were drawn from all over Australia and even further afield, and dispersed again after leaving the detention centre.

A Woomera GP, Dr Simon Lockwood, says he saw at least 50 Woomera employees who suffered significant psychological damage arising from their employment.

Dr Harold Bilboe, a psychologist based at Woomera for 14 months, believes no one who worked there escaped unscathed. That sentiment was echoed by everyone interviewed for this story.

Woomera was a makeshift desert camp containing hundreds of distressed people, their futures in the hands of a distant bureaucracy.

There was a lack of planning for the special needs of asylum seekers, insufficient staff numbers, inappropriate training for detention centre officers, and a central management that appeared unconcerned about the wellbeing of detainees and staff alike.

Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) held the contract for Australian detention centres. Like Clifton, many detention centre guards came from ACM's private prisons in Australia and New Zealand. A good number were from the Arthur Gorrie maximum-security jail in Brisbane. They were used to working with prisoners, usually men, who had specified sentences, who were engaged in rehabilitation programs, who had release dates to look forward to.

But Woomera held men, women and children, some of them unaccompanied minors. Persecution and a perilous sea voyage to Australia had traumatised many. Mostly from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, many spoke no English. They had sought a new life in Australia, and did not understand why they were held behind barbed wire.

Not all detention centre officers were former guards. Others, answering advertisements or recruited from Centrelink, underwent four or six-week training courses before starting work at Woomera. Many, perhaps most, had no relevant experience, and some had very little work experience at all.

Rick Reid, then an organiser with the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union, attended an induction briefing: "I was astounded at the people who were there. People from all kinds of backgrounds; shopkeepers, elderly people, long-term unemployed."

In Clifton's experience, they were taking them straight from the dole queue in Port Augusta: "They were totally unsuited for the work they would have to do. They had no real maturity, no work experience, not enough life experience."

The training appears to have focused on restraint methods and did not provide any understanding of the culture or background of the inmates.

Detention centres were supposed to contain detainees, not to punish them, yet it seemed to Clifton that ACM considered Woomera just another prison.

No prison in Clifton's experience had imposed conditions on its inmates like those at Woomera. Detainees sweltered in demountable huts in temperatures of 50 degrees and more. Toilets and showers were communal, people queued for meals. Fruit and milk were rationed, even for children.

In the early days of Woomera, there was no radio or television access, no newspapers, no phone calls, no access to lawyers.

The operations manual was insufficient for the centre's operational demands.

"They (ACM) didn't care," Clifton said. "For the first six months, they were making $5 million profit per month. For that they had to feed them, contain them, keep them alive."

Despite the harsh conditions, most detainees at Woomera initially bore their situation with good humour. At least some guards established friendly relations with detainees.

Gabi Schultz, a detention centre officer, recalls volleyball and cricket matches between guards and inmates.

But progress on visa applications was slow and the isolation and difficult living conditions became intolerable.

Many staff were deeply affected by their own impotence in the face of detainees' growing despair.

Mark Huxstep did nursing stints at Woomera from August 2000 to February 2001. Previously nursing in a Queensland hospital, he was attracted to Woomera because he'd heard there was good money to be made. He hadn't bargained on the emotional strain of patients' distress.

Huxstep was one of the staff identified as a "care bear" for his compassionate approach. Not all workers shared this attitude. The "care bears" were objects of derision and even contempt by the hardliners, in particular many of the guards from Arthur Gorrie, who became known as the "gas and bash" contingent.

Reflecting their prison background and the government line, which described asylum seekers as "illegals", the hardliners referred to the detainees as "crims".

When peaceful demonstrations about visa applications and living conditions failed to have any impact, several hundred detainees hurled themselves at a fence. The 50 guards were powerless to stop their march into the township and befuddled as to how to get them back.

The walkout was the first of many protests that led to violent confrontations. Clifton says riots often occurred because no action was taken to circumvent them. The first riot inside the centre occurred when a group of detainees identified as "ringleaders" was placed in the isolation unit known as the Sierra compound in the belief that they were causing trouble.

Clifton told ACM in Canberra that detainees were angry about a perceived injustice. He warned that the situation was delicate, that he did not have the resources to manage a riot. According to Clifton, the detention services national operations manager at the time responded: "F--- 'em. ACM does not back down. Take them on."

"Taking them on" saw 80 ill-prepared guards attempting to manage the chaotic revolt of hundreds of detainees armed with crude weapons. The riot ended more than 30 hours later with teargas used on a group of detainees holding several terrified guards hostage.

Thirty-two guards were injured. Clifton is proud no detainee was injured. He is adamant that but for ACM's intransigence, the situation could have been defused.

As despair overwhelmed the camp, self-harm and suicide attempts became frequent. Some staff were deeply affected by the distress of the asylum seekers, others hardened in their attitudes.

For Schultz, the atmosphere of despair was harder to deal with than the riots. "In a few weeks we went from playing volleyball to rehydrating people who had been on hunger strikes," she said.

Psychologist Bilboe was employed at Woomera to attend to the needs of staff and their partners as well as detainees.

The majority of his patients were detainees, but he calculates he also saw about one staff member each week.

Guard Keiran Ross says staff were wary of Bilboe and other psychologists at Woomera because they were employed by ACM. Sometimes staff would be debriefed after distressing incidents, but not always.

Debriefing of officers is a matter of course in public prisons. After an early disturbance, Clifton told a centre manager that the staff needed to be debriefed. The response was "F--- 'em". When Clifton remonstrated, the manager said, "OK, you do it." He claims this was symptomatic of ACM's attitude to its employees.

Bilboe describes an incident in which several detainees simultaneously tried to take their lives in a group hanging. Two were Iranians who had been accepted on appeal as refugees months before, but had been driven to despair by an interminable wait for police clearances from countries they had passed through on the way to Australia. Their lives were saved by Islander and New Zealand officers who held them up, sustaining their weight until they could be cut down. Then the guards returned to normal duties. There was no recognition of how the experience had affected them.

Dr Simon Lockwood was a GP in the township of Woomera for more than four years. He did sessions at the detention centre from October 2000 until December 2003, when the last detainee left.

He was witness to what he saw as failures by both ACM and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

"Many guards worked extraordinarily long hours, to the point where their decision-making capacity would have been impaired," he said.

While Woomera was open he saw "at least 50" detention centre workers with "significant psychopathology" that he believed to be work-related.

Of these, at least 15 to 20 were severely ill, meaning that they would be unable to work in detention centres again, or at best would be able to do so in very limited capacity.

Now settled in another outback town, Lockwood is unaware of the long-term outcomes for most of these former patients. He frequently told distressed guards that as long as they worked in those circumstances their symptoms would worsen, and consequently some left.

Those who stayed on would let off steam at Eldo's, the only pub in town, or Spuds, the outback roadhouse at nearby Pimba on the Stuart Highway.

Recalled Bilboe: "You were dealing with a culture of men who were working in an environment where alcohol was the solution. I saw people downing jugs of beer as if they were schooners - they'd down four or five in an evening as if it were normal."

Former welfare officer Alley Crace says many employees regularly arrived at work hung over or stoned.

When the Woomera detention centre opened, the local Catholic priest was Father Jim Monahan. He and Sister Anne Higgins began visiting the centre to support asylum seekers. But they became increasingly worried about those who worked there. After Woomera's closure, scarred by the experience themselves, they attempted to convene a support group for former Woomera staff.

One former worker who attended was Sharon Torbet. Torbet was not new to Woomera. Her husband, Frank, had been working for some time at the US base as a cook, and she was employed at the town's youth centre. Their two children attended the local school.

Torbet began doing administration and in 2001 was employed as an activities officer and youth worker. Frank found a job in the kitchen.

Her responsibilities were to provide programs and activities for detainees. She received no guidance about working with people from other cultures, no briefing about the traumas they may have experienced.

Torbet decided to focus on the needs of women and children. She organised a coffee club for mothers to run concurrently with an activities group for children. Where after-school care centres have a carer for every five students, at Woomera Torbet says the ratio was one to 60 or more.

She was particularly worried about child protection and made numerous reports about the worst cases. One involved a terrified 15-year-old girl held at Woomera with her mother and sisters, who was unable to escape the sexual advances of certain male detainees. Torbet's reports about this situation were ignored and the girl in question subsequently slashed her wrists in a suicide attempt.

Things were grim at Woomera even when calm. Bilboe's records, including monthly statistics provided to ACM, showed that by the end of 2001 self-harm and suicide attempts were routine. In October 2001 alone, Bilboe and two colleagues completed 764 consultations.

In January 2002, detainees organised a mass hunger strike. In a report to a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into children in detention, Torbet described the event as "the field of mattresses". People lay inert, many with their lips sewn together, on mattresses spread across the ground in the baking desert sun.

"The playground floor was littered with mattresses, some women lying, others sitting, some children bouncing on mattresses. I recognised most of the children as long-term minors. As I moved around the group I came to Riqia Bakhtiari, an Afghani. I had worked extensively with her five children aged 14 years to five years. I had filed numerous reports and referrals on the family . . . she lay on a mattress too weak to sit up; I knelt beside her, the other women told me she had not eaten for days. Riqia's lips were stitched from corner to corner (this is a sight I will never forget), her eyes held no life. I placed my hand on hers and cried; when I looked up, all present were crying."

Torbet left Woomera in January 2002, a month before her contract expired. On her return to Adelaide she says she "crashed". She was hospitalised and sedated for a weekend, then spent three months at home, unable to work or even do household chores.

She was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and received compensation. She gradually recovered her confidence and found employment, and life became manageable again.

BUT the impact of Woomera was not so easily erased. Torbet was unable to detach from people she had been close to and followed incidents at Woomera, such as the escape of the Bakhtiari children, with anxiety. She felt compelled to somehow make amends.

"There was a time when I first came back to Adelaide that I'd walk up and down Rundle Mall looking for them, for people who had been at Woomera," she recalled. "I'd seek them out and when I found them I'd go up and say something nice. It made me feel better."

It is hard to reconcile the horror of Woomera with the woman talking today, for all the world a pretty blonde suburban mum sipping a latte. She has recently started seeing a psychologist, and says the sessions are helpful. Her husband, in contrast, will not speak of Woomera. Torbet now works in a juvenile detention centre - compared to Woomera, it's a breeze.

After Allan Clifton's first diagnosis of PTSD, he took three weeks off work. The second diagnosis left him immobilised for months. "I was suicidal," he said. "I couldn't go out of the house, I couldn't get off the couch. I was basically just a vegetable."

With antidepressants he was eventually able to resume a normal life. He and Rose left Woomera and their children, who had become shy and withdrawn, seemed to recover.

But he is still plagued by intrusive memories, his sleep disturbed by nightmares, and he says he has lost mental acuity. And he feels for the many former detention centre employees who have received no help.

Nurse Mark Huxstep returned to a regional hospital but his memories of Woomera prevented him from settling down. "I tried to come back to my old job, but I couldn't cope with all these fat white people wanting elective surgery while there were people being tortured in the Australian desert."

His absorption with Woomera distanced him from his wife and family. Finally, at his wife's urging, he saw a GP who referred him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed PTSD.

"He told me that what I had was best explained as something like Vietnam vet syndrome," he said. He had counselling for 12 months, which slowly helped him overcome the symptoms of PTSD but failed to save his marriage.

How many people suffered, or continue to suffer, as a result of their employment at Woomera is unknown. Workcover SA has records only of compensation claims made by Woomera employees. Comcare covered the small number of DIMIA staff at Woomera, but will release no data. (At least one DIMIA manager, Tony Hamilton Smith, was diagnosed with and treated for PTSD, and anecdotal reports indicate there were several others.)

Even if figures were available, they would not tell the whole story. As many Vietnam vets can testify, PTSD can manifest for the first time months or years after the event.

Earlier this year, a number of former Woomera employees were called as witnesses in the Shayan Badriae case. One of them was Torbet's supervisor, former welfare officer Alley Crace, who was still being treated for PTSD. She experienced flashbacks, collapsed in the witness box and had to be hospitalised.

Bilboe was also called to give evidence. He describes a preliminary meeting with legal counsel: "I was describing how he (Shayan) sat on the floor with his parents, listless, lacking in energy, and suddenly I was in the room with them; I was back there with the parents and the child. I wasn't with the barristers any more, I was there in that room with the family and the interpreter."

Bilboe was experiencing a panic flashback, something he was familiar enough with in his patients, but had never been subject to himself. He was overcome and had to terminate the discussion. He has since sought help from a senior colleague.

The support group established by Father Jim and Sister Anne did not prosper. A couple of meetings took place, but their efforts were defeated by the dispersion of former employees, now scattered all over Australia and New Zealand.

Father Jim Monahan likens detention centre officers to Vietnam veterans; they spearheaded a controversial government policy that was popular at first but increasingly challenged over time.

Bilboe agrees: "In Vietnam, officers and soldiers believed they were doing something good for their country. The same happened with detention centre officers. Now they're ashamed to say they worked there."

This article was produced with the support of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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