Serco, the private security contractor which runs Mt Eden prison here in New Zealand, has a bad record. Violence, brutality, deaths in custody, corruption, and fraud. And now they get to add a new horror to that list: sexual assaults:
A former detainee at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre has alleged that women held there have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances and abuse by security guards and other officials.(Emphasis added).
Testimony seen by the Observer and now with police, "Tanja", a 23-year-old Roma woman released from Yarl's Wood last March, describes having had sexual contact with three male guards. Tanja – not her real name – said attempts were made to deport her within days of her informing Yarl's Wood's management of the incidents. She also claims one security guard had inappropriate relations with at least four women.
Yarl's Wood is run by Serco under contract from the Home Office. Earlier this year the company paid an undisclosed sum to a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a nurse at Yarl's Wood, although the company did not admit liability. But the shocking detail of the latest allegations is likely to trigger a full-blown inquiry into the running of the centre.
Tanja said: "A lot of officers were taking advantage of the girls that were detained. They would promise favours or offer to make life easier, saying they would have more chance of winning their case or staying in the country." In a formal witness statement she has sent to Bedfordshire police, she states that one Serco official she was involved with sexually told her: "Don't worry, there is no way they can deport you."
She also claimed the sexual contact was not all consensual. Referring to one occasion, she stated: "I said I was scared and I did not want to ... There were two occasions when I was made to do 'blow jobs' when I did not want to. [The guard] was well aware that I did not want to."
Given the power dynamic of a prison, there is a high risk of such abuses. Which is why you're supposed to have vigorous oversight of prison staff, as well as secure complaint mechanisms and external independent oversight to make sure that those running the prison can't cover things up. All of those mechanisms seem to have failed here. But it is Serco who has failed in the first instance here, by failing to properly supervise its staff and protect those in their care from their depredations. The question now is whether the UK government will let them get away with it.
Meanwhile, it raises an obvious question: do we really think that this company, which permits such crimes to occur, is fit to run a prison in New Zealand? I think not.