The Guardian March 20, 2002


Wackenhut, Woomera and thinking the unthinkable

by Bob Briton

It seems that it is the season for thinking the unthinkable. At the 
international level, aside from the waging of an endless "war on 
terrorism", we have the US administration talking openly about the possible 
future uses of nuclear weapons in a way that used to take place only in 
secret.

In Australia we have legislation that converts ASIO into a secret police 
and other rule changes to prevent public officials from alerting the public 
to abuses of government power. Under the cover of "defending Australia's 
sovereignty from attack by illegal immigrants", we now have a system of 
concentration camps run by a company that is a wholly owned subsidiary of a 
US corporation that has specialised in strike breaking, guarding nuclear 
testing and waste facilities and which compiled dossiers on three million 
US citizens suspected of being crypto-communists!

Australasian Correctional Management was registered in Australia in 1991 
and was the successful tenderer for the job of managing the country's 
Immigration Detention Centres and to provide detention transport services.

They were also able to take advantage of the boom in private prisons. They 
have operated the Arthur Gory Remand and Reception Centre in Queensland 
since 1992, the Junee Correctional Centre in NSW since 1993, the Fulham 
Correctional Centre in Victoria since 1997 and took charge of the Melbourne 
Custody Centre last year.

Among its other "achievements", ACM has managed to reduce the cost to the 
Federal Government of keeping an asylum seeker in detention from $145 per 
day three years ago to only $112 today. All in all, ACM's is a story of 
startling growth. More startling still is its relationship to its US parent 
company Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC).

WCC is the US's second biggest corporate jailer. Of the nearly two million 
US citizens behind bars, 100,000 are in the private prisons that form part 
of what has been called the "prison industrial complex".

WCC has about 17,000 beds at 24 facilities in the US. It is an arm of the 
Wackenhut Corporation which has an annual turnover of $2.2 billion and 
enjoys a place on the Forbes Magazine Platinum List of the best big 
companies in the US. It is underwritten by Wall Street firms like Goldman 
Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

Wackenhut Corporation is named after its founder George R Wackenhut, who 
was described by Britain's Observer Life Magazine as a "more than 
usually right wing businessman". He now lives in a mock castle in Florida 
and has a yacht called Top Secret. His official biography is called 
The Quiet American, a title borrowed from the Graham Greene novel 
about an intelligence officer in French Indo-China.

Before opening shop as a private investigator and then starting up a 
private security firm, he was an FBI agent. He found work for many other 
former FBI staffers in his new outfit. Former Deputy Director of the CIA, 
Frank Carlucci and former Head of Defence Intelligence, General Joseph 
Carol have also found places on the Corporation's board.

Wackenhutt soon found itself in charge of security at top-secret nuclear 
facilities like the Nevada Test Site and the Savanna Ridge Site where 
weapons grade plutonium is produced. It guards other testing and nuclear 
waste dump facilities for the US Department of Energy. Since 1957 it has 
provided security at around 20 US embassies and diplomatic missions.

As mentioned previously, George Wackenhut took it upon himself to keep 
files on three million Americans he thought to be crypto-communists. By the 
late 1960s this was largest collection of private surveillance data in the 
US. Civic-minded George reportedly handed the information over to his 
former employer, the FBI.

It hasn't all been plain sailing for Wackenhut, though. The "corrections" 
arm of the corporation has come in for a lot of adverse public attention 
from the early days of its separate existence in the 1990's. Its prisons 
have a reputation hiring often incompetent, unqualified guards.

In 1999, 12 of WCC's prison guards were charged with raping and assaulting 
women prisoners in a Texas jail. In February this year, the US Justice 
Department accused guards at a Juvenile Detention Centre in Louisiana of 
habitually using excessive force. It also accused WCC authorities of 
allowing fights over items like food and clothing. Juvenile detainees have 
since been relocated and WCC has reluctantly agreed to find some other use 
for the centre.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Wackenhut subsidiary ACM has been 
accused of maintaining a "culture" at facilities like Woomera that includes 
frequent random searches, head counts and sleep deprivation. Ray Hartigan 
of the Woomera Lawyers Group told Melbourne's Sunday "Herald Sun" that he 
was impressed by the guards when he visited the detainees two years ago.

Since then, the former administrator of the Catholic St Vincent de Paul 
charity has observed a marked deterioration. "ACM takes teenagers off the 
dole queues in places like Port Augusta, trains them for two and a half 
days, and pays them $1,000 a week. They do as they're told because the 
money is good and they don't want to go back on the dole."

Mr Hartigan now believes that the centre is run on principles aimed to 
disorient and oppress inmates.

It is a mark of just how conditioned the public is to thinking the 
unthinkable that the use of water cannons on the Woomera detainees is 
quickly forgotten in the rush of even more shocking news. This was the 
first time a water cannon has been used on civilians in Australia and it 
was used by a private company on a group of asylum seekers in a privately 
run concentration camp in a prohibited area in the outback.

So, while the Wackenhut subsidiary and its partners earn $98 million a year 
for running Australia's refugee centres, the Federal Government is having a 
review of the system. Already we have been told that the Woomera facility 
is to be kept even though it now appears that the strategy of intercepting 
and warehousing asylum seekers offshore is to be enhanced. Christmas Island 
is to have a permanent facility and it appears that the "Pacific Solution" 
is to become part of a "Final Solution".

Woomera is to have some additional funds lavished on it to plant out the 
grounds and take away some of its hellish appearance. There will be more 
air conditioners installed  contrary to the media-created impression, not 
all of the transportable huts have air-conditioning as a defence against 
the 40 degree centigrade plus temperatures frequently experienced during 
summer or the cold desert nights at other times. The Baxter site at El 
Alemain is reportedly ready to receive some of Woomera's overflow within 
the next few weeks.

As surely as night follows day, the reports of the mistreatment of asylum 
seekers will continue to filter out from behind the razor wire.

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