Suburban black sites

In the detention centre at Villawood, in the west of Sydney, there are two concrete cells where asylum seekers are locked up alone. The guards call them “cool down rooms”. In prison argot, these are dry cells. They have no toilet and no water. There is a single mattress and a closed-circuit camera.

Use of the cells is supposed to require approval from a detention superintendent. They are supposed to seek advice on the prisoner’s mental and physical health. Time limits are to be strictly enforced.

This is not how it works. A report on torture from the Commonwealth Ombudsman says there is no policy governing use of the cells. There is no training, no consultation with health staff. The strict limits on how long a person can be kept like this are ignored. Records are almost non-existent.

At Villawood and elsewhere, mechanical restraints are routinely employed. Spit hoods are still in use. Intimidation and drug trade are rife. Women are especially vulnerable as there are not facilities enough to protect them.

On Christmas Island, guards sprayed detainees with fire extinguishers to control them. Footage exists of this but it was not mentioned in incident reports. On one occasion the extinguishers were discharged into a closed room where detainees were hiding. The ombudsman described this as a “pre-planned and systematic use of force”.

In hotel detention the facilities were unclean and crowded. There was faeces in the bathrooms. Detainees were served food with maggots in it and staff decided not to replace the food because the maggots were “just on the vegetables”.

Had this report been released while John Howard was prime minister, it would have been a national scandal. It would have filled broadsheets and led the evening news. Instead, it is met with numbness and fatigue.

The minister, having received the report, should have held a press conference and announced that he was closing the suburban black sites and island camps. Terrible things are being done, he should have said, and they will now stop. Instead, he did nothing.

Labor invented the idea of mandatory detention and is quietly sustaining its ugliest excesses. Last week it missed its deadline to implement the torture prevention bodies obliged by international conventions.

The voices of outrage are largely silent. The replacement of a despicable government with a less bad one has a calming effect. It makes no difference at all, however, to the innocent people being tortured in this system.

This is not quite the Overton window. It is not about what has been made acceptable. The average person would still object to isolation cells and maggoty food. The issue is something else: it is a kind of moral laziness, an indifference that comes from it being too hard, from the party of government being the one you might have voted in.

It is impossible to read the ombudsman’s report and not feel disgust and sadness and roiling fury. The question now is what else does this government need to feel before it ends this unspeakable shame?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Suburban black sites".

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