By Tom Iggulden
The Commonwealth ombudsman has launched an inquiry into skyrocketing rates of suicide and self-harm attempts in immigration detention centres. New figures reveal an average of three threatened or actual self-harm attempts across the detention centre network per day. In just one week earlier this month, there were 50 such incidents.
Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher launched his official inquiry after seeing the evidence with his own eyes.
"I spent a week on Christmas Island myself at the end of June and there were 30 incidents in just that week," he said.Louise Newman, an independent advisor to the Government on mental health in immigration detention centres, is backing the inquiry.
"We then heard that in the first week in July there were 50 in all the places of detention and it just tells us there is something wrong and it needs to be looked at."
"I think this is very appropriate, much needed. We're at a crucial time now within the detention system," she said.The ombudsman has obtained figures from the Immigration Department showing there were 1,132 instances of actual or threatened self-harm across the immigration detention network over the last 12 months. One suicide has been confirmed over that period, while there are coronial inquests into another five suspected suicides.
"There are serious suicide attempts usually every night. So there is a mass culture built around fear and despair," Ms Newman said.Lateline has obtained internal documents from Serco, which operates the detention network under contract from the Government.
"And in fact talking to detainees they describe that: their preoccupation with death."
They are a log of self-harm incidents on the violence-prone Christmas Island detention centre from May and June this year. The logs show that on the day of June 9, there were five incidents of self-harm, two hanging attempts, four threats of self-harm and one of "suicide ideation".
Another page advises "Hoffmans to be worn by all officers at all times". Hoffmans are understood to be knives given to staff to cut down detainees who have attempted to hang themselves.
So high is the suicide risk, that detainees are not allowed to own their own razor.
"If the detainees need to shave, the razor will be provided while they have a shower and after they finish they hand it to the officer, who then disposes of it," one Serco log reads.Tomorrow marks three years since the Government announced an overhaul of the Howard government's approach to running the detention network.
"Policy initiatives I've detailed are beginnings of a new approach, introducing new and more compassionate values to our detention policies," then-immigration minister Chris Evans said at that time.Mr Asher says spiralling self-harm rates do not not appear to be consistent with those values.
"We think that the elaboration of those values represents current Government policy. That's what we're looking to encourage and until that's changed, I think the Government has bound itself to those," he said.Ms Newman says detention centres are filled with "people who have experienced torture and trauma".
"Government policy states that those people should not be detained. And yet they are," she said.The ombudsman will work with a committee of mental health experts and says he will leave no stone unturned, including an examination of the Government contracts under which Serco operates detention centres.
"We're entitled to speak to anyone and see any document we want at any time," he said.28 July an Immigration Department spokesman said the issue was a "complex and challenging" one and pledged to cooperate with the inquiry.
"Of course the Government is concerned by instances of self-harm in immigration detention," he said.
"The Immigration Department and the contracted health services provider ensure people in detention have access to mental health care, including mental health nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists."
"All personnel who work with people in detention are trained to recognise and respond to the warning signs and risk factors of self-harm."
"The Government has worked hard to change the culture of detention, as well as improving processing of asylum claims for people in detention, which has seen the number of people in immigration detention facilities drop by more than 2,000 since April to just over 4,100."Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has already commissioned his own study into mental health and suicide prevention strategies in the detention network, working with, among others, the head of Suicide Prevention Australia, Michael Dudley.
"As it has with all of the Ombudsman’s inquiries into immigration detention, the Government will cooperate with this investigation and will assist where required."