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Detention centre self-harming prompts inquiry -

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Detention centre self-harming prompts inquiry

Broadcast: 28/07/2011

Reporter: Tom Iggulden

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has launched an inquiry into sky-rocketing rates of suicide and
self-harm attempts in immigration detention centres.


STEVE CANNANE, PRESENTER: The Commonwealth Ombudsman has launched an inquiry into the skyrocketing
rates of suicide attempts and self-harm in immigration detention centres.

New numbers reveal an average of three threatened or actual attempts across the detention centre
network per day.

In just one week earlier this month, there were 50 such incidents.

Political correspondent Tom Iggulden has this special report.

TOM IGGULDEN, REPORTER: The Commonwealth Ombudsman launched his official inquiry after seeing the
evidence of his own eyes.

ALLAN ASHER, COMMONWEALTH OMBUDSMAN: I spent a week on Christmas Island myself at the end of June
and there were 30 incidents in just that week. We then heard that in the first week of July, there
were 50 from around all of the places of detention and it just tells us that there's something
wrong and something needs to be looked at.

TOM IGGULDEN: An independent advisor to the Government on mental health in Immigration detention
centres is backing the inquiry.

LOUISE NEWMAN, MENTAL HEALTH ADVISOR: I think this is very appropriate, much-needed. We're at a
crucial time now within the detention system.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Ombudsman's 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's been confirmed over that period; there are coronial inquests into
another five suspected suicides.

LOUISE NEWMAN: There are serious suicide attempts usually every night. So it's a mass culture built
around fear and despair. And in fact talking to detainees, they describe that: their preoccupation
with death.

TOM IGGULDEN: Lateline's obtained internal documents from Serco, which operates the detention
network under contract from the Government. They're a log of self-harm incidents on the
violence-prone Christmas Island detention centre from May and June this year.

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've attempted to hang themselves.

So high is the suicide risk that detainees are not allowed 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."

Tomorrow marks three years since the Government announced an overhaul of the Howard Government's
approach to running the detention network.

CHRIS EVANS, IMMIGRATION MINISTER (July 2008): Policy initiatives I've detailed today, are I think
the beginning of a new approach, introducing new and more compassionate values to our detention

TOM IGGULDEN: The Ombudsman says spiralling self-harm rates don't appear to be consistent with
those values.

ALLAN ASHER: We think that the elaboration of those detention 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.

LOUISE NEWMAN: We have people who've experienced torture and trauma, and Government policy states
that those people should not be detained. And yet they are.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Ombudsman will work with a committee of mental health experts and says he'll
leave no stone unturned, including an examination of the Government contracts under which Serco
operates the detention centres.

ALLAN ASHER: We're entitled to speak to anyone and to see any document we want at any time.

TOM IGGULDEN: The Government says it too is concerned by the rate of self-harm in the detention
network. A spokesman for the minister told Lateline, "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 Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, has initiated his own investigation into better mental
health strategies at detention centres, working with, amongst others, the head of Suicide
Prevention Australia, Dr Michael Dudley.

Tom Iggulden, Lateline.