In the Penal Colony

While private companies should not have been given so much power over Victoria’s hotel quarantine, the program itself illuminates the swiftness with which this country reaches for tools of punitive confinement. Initial evacuations of Chinese-Australians from Wuhan in early 2020 were sent to Christmas Island. Hotel quarantine may be a comparatively benign and expedient manifestation of that impulse, but others during the pandemic have not been so.

Outsourcing Australia’s detention industry

Robert Glas, Voor vrij Nederland (immigration detention, location Scheveningen). 2015.

The guards were hired to make sure nobody left their hotel room. In response to the developing Covid-19 pandemic, Australia’s state and federal governments had agreed in March 2020 that residents returning from overseas through the country’s otherwise closed borders would undergo two weeks of mandatory hotel quarantine. It fell to each state to implement. In Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, the task of supervision was given to private security subcontractors. Everybody agreed the job would be simple. No one achieved clarity on what the job would actually be. The major alteration was when guests, in April, were suddenly allowed to go outside occasionally for air, requiring guards to escort them. There was the matter of care packages from families, and takeout deliveries for people with dietary requirements. Security guards handled luggage and went toy shopping for children. The tasks, and opportunities for contact, multiplied.

Hotel quarantine was a cornerstone of Australia’s early Covid response. For a while, it seemed to work. At the beginning of May 2020, it looked like Australia had flattened the curve. On June 9 only two new cases were reported nationally. But those numbers gave way to a second wave, almost entirely concentrated in Melbourne. The national cumulative case count doubled from 8,000 to 16,000 in July. Private security, it turns out, is a poorly regulated industry of insecure workers, with a known history of failure to meet minimum standards. Stories emerged that the three security firms brought on in Melbourne had recruited guards over WhatsApp, given them ten minutes of training, and paid minimum wage cash-in-hand. There were allegations of insufficient PPE and regard for safety protocols, and, more luridly, of guards having sex with their charges. That last claim was never confirmed, though it spread quickly, for obvious reasons. It is true, anyway, that in at least two cases guards were dismissed for “overly friendly” behavior. One guest later admitted she had flirted with security guards to be permitted more time outside. She was more successful than she would have liked; at the end of her quarantine one asked if he could go home with her.

The first infection of a quarantine contractor was reported on May 27. I had returned to Australia some months previous from a long time overseas. Watching the outbreaks spread, along with the breathless reporting that followed, was for me a vertigo-inducing experience. At the same time that restrictions were being eased in response to Australia’s early success, new Covid clusters were beginning to form: in Truganina, a suburb in Melbourne’s west where 20 percent of residents were born in India; Hallam, a south-western suburb where the most common language after English is Dari; and Sunshine West, an area much like the one, in a neighboring state, where I grew up—predominantly Vietnamese, and where the most common reported occupations are laborer and machinery operator. It seemed obvious that these were working-class and immigrant communities where people with insecure, “low-skilled” jobs like being a private security subcontractor were most likely to live. Still, the reporting often seemed to suggest there was no way of even beginning to tell where the infections had come from. If our public officials knew better, they weren’t talking about it.

Each day of July and August offered a chaos of novel and contradicting reports, revealing the gaps within and between government, the companies they had put in charge of crisis management, and the media tasked with reporting on them both. On June 30 the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared there would be a “judicial inquiry” into the hotel quarantine. On July 7 he announced the need for five million people to return to lockdown, only weeks after the first had been lifted. That lockdown turned out to be one of the longest in the world, at 111 days. But nobody knew that then, and perhaps that would not have helped. “I think a sense of complacency has crept into us,” Daniels said in a televised address; “I think that each of us know someone who has not been following the rules.” On July 13, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton indicated publicly for the first time that genomic sequencing the government had received at the end of June suggested nearly every active infection stemmed from the hotel quarantine. For a few weeks, the Premier deflected the increasingly heated scrutiny by saying it would be inappropriate to comment on a matter pending judicial inquiry. This led the retired judge chairing the investigation to clarify that the inquiry was not a court, and so there was nothing to “prevent a person from commenting publicly or answering questions to which they know the answers.” All such persons involved appeared to have none. Andrews purported not to know which of his own agencies had been responsible for the program’s administration (the leading contenders were Jobs and Health). Sutton claimed to have learned about the problems with the program from reading about it in the newspaper. The state’s Health Minister Jenny Mikakos made similar protestations, though they did not save her from being the one who ultimately took the blame. Meanwhile, the outbreak spread along familiar fault lines: succeeding what was previously the largest cluster at an abattoir, the hotel quarantine infections turned into a crisis in aged care, a sector for which the federal government is responsible.

As public furor intensified, the security industry’s major trade association in Australia rebutted that there is “no inherent problem with using private security or even subcontractors” so long as there is “proper training and supervision.” But of course there is no “inherent problem.” We are, each of us, as capable of being competent and acting in the public interest as both our natural resources and material conditions will allow. The better question is how often those conditions are met. The unique structural laxity of private security contracting was clearly a key factor of the virus’s spread. The mainstream consensus in response—that the quarantine should have been run by police and the military all along—is its own failure of imagination. Serious breaches could have been foreseen. They have already happened before. After all, the companies implicated in the quarantine failures are the same ones that manage Australia’s notoriously (and therefore, for some other countries, aspirationally) brutal immigrant detention centers, as well as its growing number of private prisons. The institutional reflex to outsource to these companies raises the question of why the policing of Australia’s borders consistently falls on private entities, and connects Australia’s second outbreak to a logic of carceral capitalism that stretches around the world.

A carceral impulse, of course, was foundational to the establishment of the Australian state. We all learn as schoolchildren that this country was established because Britain ran out of space in its prisons. Between one and four million people lived in extreme poverty at any given time in Georgian England, with predictable effects on the gaol population. Once the American colonies won their independence, surplus convicts could no longer be shipped there—and so the First Fleet sailed in 1787 to found the penal colony of New South Wales. Over the subsequent 80 years, the British courts sentenced more than 160,000 people to transportation to Australia, where they could partake in the mission of enlarging and fortifying Britain’s imperial power.

Like any good former prison colony, Australia is today a country obsessed with the policing and maintenance of its borders. For one, it operates a staggeringly harsh, expensive, and racialized domestic incarceration apparatus. The current era has been described as a “second convict age,” owing to a rise in the rate of imprisonment to levels not seen since 1899. The proportion of Indigenous people in prison exceeds that of Black people in the United States. Meanwhile, Australia’s political establishment shares with the UK what is described in academic literature as a phenomenon of “loud panicking” and “quiet manoeuvring” around asylum seekers, from countries including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. How does one explain that “boat people” was the defining election issue for twenty years in this country, even though the majority of asylum seekers arrive by plane, and even though Australia receives an entirely unremarkable proportion of the world’s refugees in both relative and absolute terms? One of the most popular television programs when I was a child was a reality show about customs and border protection, which remains on the air.

Australia’s border fetish is seemingly heightened by the fact that we have no land neighbors. It provides the illusion that the country can achieve perfect control. It also gives rise to a restrictive immigration regime that has expanded intensely in the past two decades, and is the envy of many other countries—including the US and UK—who wish to believe in this illusion as fervently as Australians do.

During a federal election season in late 2001, with support from both major parties, Australia’s conservative government developed the Pacific Solution, an ominously named policy built around the determination that asylum seekers coming to the Australian continent by sea should never reach the mainland. That August there had been a stand-off between the Australian government and a Norwegian freighter carrying 433 asylum seekers known as the Tampa affair; claims—false—that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in order to be rescued dominated the election cycle. The “Solution” consisted of excising thousands of islands from Australia’s migration zone, outside which individuals have limited access to legal rights and review; engaging the military to intercept asylum seekers at sea; and removing asylum seekers to offshore detention centers, on the Australian dependent territory of Christmas Island, the Papua New Guinean province of Manus, or the former Australian territory of Nauru (for a time the world’s second-richest nation per capita, Nauru has been decimated by strip-mining and is nearly entirely reliant on Australian business and aid). The conditions in these facilities have been found to violate international conventions against torture. Recently the ICC Prosecutor determined that they are “cruel, inhuman, and degrading,” though stop short of the legal definition of a crime against humanity.

In July 2013, another federal election year, the Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initiated a policy that boat arrivals would henceforth never be resettled in Australia, even if they were determined to be refugees. Rudd lost the election, but as a consequence of that policy there are people who have now been indefinitely detained for nearly eight years. The increasingly militarized Operation Sovereign Borders succeeded the Pacific Solution in September 2013, under the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The innovation of Operation Sovereign Borders was to employ brute military force to turn boats back to their point of origin, regardless of the consequences, and in contravention of a host of international laws. Though the new policy was the widely trumpeted result of a key election promise to “stop the boats,” its effect was to shield the government from accountability for its actions. Under the Border Force Act, it became a criminal offense carrying the possibility of two years’ jail for a person employed in the detention system—by the government or any of its contractors—to discuss anything pertaining to their work. Journalist visa applications to Nauru began to cost a non-refundable $8000, with most requests denied.

Australia’s offshore detention centers have always been run by private companies. Increasingly, prisons onshore are being privatized too. (Australia has the highest proportion of privately managed prisoners in the world, and nowhere, incidentally, is the prison system expanding more aggressively than in Victoria.) Of course these arrangements are mutually beneficial for government and contractor—that is the point—but it is worth examining more closely exactly how. The companies implicated in Australia’s detention regime have profited enormously. This has global implications, given what other kinds of work those profits have enabled such companies to seek, and what political influence and financial power it has enabled them to solidify. There is a direct line, if you want to draw one, between failures of contact tracing in the UK during Covid in 2020, for example, and Australian offshore detention since 2001. Outsourcing, meanwhile, enables governments to shield themselves from legal accountability, to conceal information behind the idea that it is commercially sensitive, and to pretend that certain kinds of violence do not occur at their behest.

Outrage over the cruelties of prisons and detention often focalizes on private contractors. This outrage is warranted, but it is also incomplete. It emerges routinely that contractors have failed to meet basic conditions. Sometimes they face financial penalties for particularly grievous misdeeds. And yet the contracts keep coming, and the slipperiness of identifying who to blame or what to do about it might actually be why. Whether we agree or not, we are usually told that the primary motive for outsourcing is increased efficiency. Less often is it discussed that the principal benefit might be to obscure responsibility.

The Victorian government contracted three private security companies—Wilson, MSS, and Unified—to administer its hotel quarantine. They are predominantly multinationals, routinely subcontracted by even larger multinationals, shaping tributaries of capital that often flow along old colonial lines. MSS is owned by Security and Intelligence Services (SIS), a prominent Indian firm that nonetheless as of 2018 derived more than half of its revenue from its operations in Australia. Its sometime-billionaire owner, Ravindra Kishore Sinha, has served the ruling BJP since 2014 as one of the wealthiest MPs in India’s upper house; he founded SIS in 1974 to furnish work for retired soldiers he had met as a war correspondent during the conflict between India and Pakistan. Today SIS “arguably wins more government contracts than any other security provider” in India. Sinha’s son Rituraj, who now runs the business day-to-day, has termed the security industry “‘recession-proof’ in a post-9/11 world.” In 2017, Sinha incurred criticism because the Paradise Papers revealed that his company holds subsidiaries in Malta that he had not declared while being nominated to Parliament. The subsidiaries, he demurred, were all above board—and, moreover, in the national interest. They had been formed to execute the firm’s Australian buyouts: “Now I’m getting millions in profits from that Australia business which I’m bringing to India and distributing to our Indian shareholders in dividend.”

The similarly ubiquitous Wilson Security has held dozens of government contracts in Australia since 2007, with a cumulative value of over $1.3 billion AUD. Still, this is only a fraction of the turnover of its parent company, Sun Hung Kai Properties. The largest property developer in Hong Kong, Sun Hung Kai has made its owners, the Kwok clan, one of the wealthiest families in Asia. With a third generation of Stanford and Ivy League–educated scions on the rise, the Kwoks may or may not transcend the decades of drama and dynastic struggle that characterized the second: abductions, ousters, legal scraps, rumored psychological breakdowns leaving the eldest heir displeasingly susceptible to the influence of an ex-girlfriend—and the arrest of his younger brothers on bribery charges in March 2012. The leak in 2016 of documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca (the Panama Papers) showed that Thomas and Raymond Kwok engaged the firm in the wake of their arrest to covertly retain control of the offshore company responsible for Wilson’s operations in Australia. The concealment of their directorship under shell companies seems to have enabled Wilson Security to skirt disclosure requirements for bribery offences when bidding on an Australian government defense contract in 2014.

All the contractors for the hotel quarantine were brought on without a formal bidding process, but only Unified was, additionally, not on the government’s list of pre-approved suppliers. Unlike MSS and Wilson, Unified is not a large global corporation. Until the quarantine scandal, it had been prominently marketing itself as the country’s “largest wholly Australian and indigenous-owned security company,” a phrase in which the coordinating conjunction appears to have been doing a lot of work.1 Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph suggests the company has historically been owned by a Luigi Trunzo, who retains 49 percent of its shares. The remaining 51 percent is held via a “complex structure” by David Millward, said to be the basis of Unified’s certifications as a majority indigenous-owned business. Media reports raised the government’s social inclusion procurement targets as one reason Unified was selected for the contract. Unified has faced financial troubles that continue to the present, unless one accepts the distinction between the Unified Security Group (Aust) Pty Ltd of 534 Parramatta Road that is currently in protracted liquidation from the Unified Security Group (Australia) Pty Ltd of 534 Parramatta Road that is not. Those proceedings began in 2008, when the now-deregistered Unified Services NSW Pty Ltd was sued by a 23-year-old international student from Pakistan named Faisal Durrani for being paid what amounted to $1.26 per hour to work as a security guard at the Australian Open tennis tournament. A key question in the case was who, in fact, had employed Durrani, given that at least three degrees of subcontracting had occurred.

Durrani’s case is indicative. In addition to routinely subcontracting, firms like MSS, Unified and Wilson are themselves often subcontracted, by even larger and more abstract entities like Serco Group Ltd, a British outsourcing firm currently helmed by Rupert Soames (a grandson of Winston Churchill). The government identifies work it thinks an outsourcing company can do more efficiently; that company decides it would be most efficient to contract a dozen more, who themselves employ workers on a temporary or insecure basis. If Australia’s hotel quarantine reveals the fragilities of the private security industry, then examining Serco in its own context illuminates the wider-reaching stakes. The use of outsourcers and private security companies to contain a respiratory virus during a pandemic is not separate from their use in ordinary times to contain immigrants or prisoners, or to build schools and run hospitals. Without being visible or accountable to the majority of people, such companies have become responsible for administering vast swathes of our everyday lives. That includes the ordinary connective tissues of services and infrastructure that make up a society, but also—granted that they are not always different—the flashpoints of contact between individuals and sovereign states that determine whether they live or die.

Serco stands for Service Corporation, a portmanteau so empty as to evade any opportunity for satire. It is one of a variety of global service delivery companies that is willing to administer or supply more or less anything: air traffic control in Dubai, the world’s parking meters from Hong Kong to San Francisco, applications for Obamacare, nuclear weapons, part of the TfL, part of the NHS, the entire school system of one of the largest metropolitan districts in England—and of course, prisons and immigrant detention, in Australia and elsewhere. The UK government has continued to award contracts to Serco for asylum-seeker housing and immigration removal centers despite allegations of physical and sexual abuse, as well as evidence over many years that the firm frequently fails to meet key performance indicators, which the government has sought to withhold as commercially sensitive. In May 2020, in an appointment that has been alleged to be an act of favoritism, Serco was awarded £108 million to manage the UK’s contact-tracing system, the robustness of which was considered essential for the UK to safely exit lockdown. It emerged quickly that the UK’s Test and Trace program, which relied on poorly trained temporary workers in centralized call centers to reach close contacts of Covid-19 cases nationwide, was ineffective. In July it was reported that the firm had subcontracted twenty-nine other companies to do this work—the names of which the government could not initially produce, firstly because they did not want to and secondly because they did not know—such that 9,000 of the 10,500 staff were not directly employed by Serco. Still, the contract was extended in October, and the company’s shares rose 17.8 percent.

A leaked email in June showed Serco’s CEO had written to staff, “I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly”—but also that the contact-tracing job could “go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain.” Soames knows there will always be objectors to outsourcing, in practice or in principle. “There are a few, a noisy few,” he said, “who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service.” It is not hard to imagine how Soames may have come by such authoritative conviction. He is deeply embedded in the ruling aristocracy. His brother Nicholas, a former defense minister and private security executive, spent thirty-seven years as a Conservative MP. Prince William was the pageboy at Soames’ 1988 wedding. The leaked email expresses Soames’ teleological certitude about the role private-sector companies should play in delivering public services. But what should the rest of us expect?

The most honest testimony might be in Serco’s own reports to shareholders. In the 1990s and 2000s, Soames writes in a 2018 stock exchange announcement, the UK government was “keen to enlist” the private sector to “improve the efficiency” of public services. The result was a boom period for outsourcing companies, and while the government was determining how to structure these arrangements, it was “sometimes outrun by more sophisticated and canny suppliers.” The arrangements alluded to are the Private Finance Initiatives (PFI)—a subset of public-private partnership announced in 1992 that relies on private finance to fund capital expenditure. By 2010, the government had entered into some 800 PFI contracts with a cost of £331 billion over their lifespan.

But the era in which outsourcers could “outrun” the government soon came to an end. Austerity squeezed government spending at the same time that the field flooded with new competitors lured, in Soames’ words, by “the flow of milk and honey.” The government honed its own deal-making instincts, transforming its “commercial and contracting capabilities beyond all recognition . . . Sophisticated buying techniques were imported from the private sector; contracts for sensitive public services such as caring for asylum seekers were awarded to the lowest bidder by online auction.” Corporate Watch reports that Serco was “the first of the big-name outsourcers to hit financial trouble” in the 2010s, for a time “just keeping afloat” because of “numerous loss-making contracts taken on as the company raced to expand.” As Serco would tell it, the company took some wrong turns that were compounded by hostile circumstance. “This is the market at work, with a tendency for the balance of advantage to move between buyers and sellers in accordance with supply and demand,” Soames wrote in the 2018 report. He does not seem to find it ironic that the company’s troubles during this era arose because both parties to the contract, including the one that was a government, were behaving like private entities. Even multinational corporations suffer when too many people are acting the part.

It is discussed so plainly and so often in Serco reports that I realized it must be obvious to anyone in the business: even if outsourcing begins with an abstract ideological investment in the free market and an attendant (though apparently unreliable) expectation of financial savings, the terrain on which contracts are actually negotiated is much more abstruse. With the efficiency of the private sector treated as axiomatic, the real battleground became the shifting of risk, the theoretical possibility for a government to fix ahead of time the terms of its obligations. The effect, whether intended or not, is also to be able to disclaim responsibility for the consequences—whether these are unlivable conditions in UK immigrant removal centers, the use of unlawful force on Christmas Island detainees, or deaths due to medical neglect in prisons in Western Australia. This, more than anything, is what Soames and his company highlight as the front on which the government aggressively exercised its newfound commercial acumen: “It appeared to be a conclusion of UK Government that if risk transfer was a benefit to them of outsourcing, surely the more risk you could force suppliers to take, the better.”2 But for all of Serco’s complaints, the advent of risk transfer seems to have been a boon for outsourcers. Every PFI contract had to be proved to be better “value for money” than the public alternative. The nebulousness of risk calculation is one of a number of conceptual instruments that helped offset the fact that governments are able to borrow money significantly more cheaply than the private sector. Without the contribution of risk transfer—the estimated value to the government of not having to anticipate construction cost overruns, political or economic volatility, liability to litigation, or other such contingencies—many PFI projects would never have been approved at all.  In other words, the deciding factor in these contracts was the immense value to the government of having a private company shoulder responsibility should anything go wrong. This was even as the increased efficiency of the private sector—the inspired agility born of chasing the bottom line—was invoked as proof that, insofar as the human hand could vouchsafe, nothing would.

The PFI model finally ended in 2018 with the collapse of the Serco competitor Carillion, following years of financial mismanagement. By then, the PFI model had come to be widely regarded as a tremendous scam. PFI contracts cost up to 70 percent more than if the government had funded infrastructure projects itself, but the model became entrenched because it let the government keep the initial outlays required by major infrastructure projects off its balance sheets, even if the annual repayments on that debt ultimately far exceeded the outlay. By 2018, the PFI debt totaled £300 billion for projects that were only worth £54.7 billion (for contrast, the national deficit was £158 billion for the 2010 fiscal year, when the government announced austerity).

Serco, nonetheless, remains optimistic about the outsourcing trade. Certain things have been bad for business: the industry’s inherent exposure to politics, “the ending of the war in Afghanistan.” But it has also been boosted by the global spread of Thatcherism and Reaganism and is undergirded by an expectation of “continuing and enduring need” for its services, ones that are relatively unlikely to be “disintermediated by a start-up.” “Providing services to governments is not easy,” Serco’s 2019 Annual Report offers. “Margins . . . are slim, and risks are high; the relationship between risk and reward is asymmetrical.” Still, “running these businesses”—which, after all, appears mostly to involve moving people around—“does not require large amounts of capital, so slim margins can still deliver attractive returns.” An outsourcing firm will always know where to find its debtors and need never fear that they cannot “pay their bills.” And if governments in their own realms “wield the power of a monopoly purchaser,” multinationals hold the advantage in that “every country has a government.” Met with hostile conditions or unreasonable demands, a canny outsourcer can simply go elsewhere: “In a market with low barriers to both entry and exit, suppliers can move, but governments cannot.” France will always be in France, but there is always some other country in need of submarines, hospital staff, or transportation infrastructure. The “market for private sector delivery of government services is very large” and remains, in Serco’s view, untapped: “around two-thirds of the services that could be provided by the private sector are currently self-delivered by government.” A colonialism that requires a nation-state apparatus begins to look quaint in comparison.

Serco also believes one of its special advantages is to facilitate the “sharing of ideas and best practice” across countries and sectors, “which governments often find hard to achieve.” “New approaches for running prisons  . . . in the UK,” for example, “come from Australia.” This is alarming, given that Australia’s privatized detention facilities are widely condemned for poor management and brutal conditions. But perhaps it is merely an acknowledgment that Australia’s prison and detention industries are a model of the outsourcing arrangement in its most advantageous—and not incidentally, most violent—form. In it the government finds a willing partner who can be expected to deflect scrutiny. In the government, Serco finds a client whose readiness to pay for its carceral apparatus defies all economic logic, appearing limitless. The consequences for those implicated in this system are catastrophic, and often fatal. If our collective morality were not already sufficient inducement to be concerned about such consequences, the failures of outsourcing at other times and in other places—such as now, during a pandemic—demonstrate that we do not, anyway, escape them.

The threat of imprisonment for those who speak about their work in Australia’s privatized detention facilities makes it hard to know exactly what takes place in them. But what we do know is not good. Between 2010 and 2011, Serco was penalized $15 million by the Immigration Department—close to the maximum 5 percent permissible under its agreement—for breaches of contract while running nine of Australia’s sixteen detention centers. This could have referred to a range of things: poor facility conditions, unsafe food practices, failure to report major incidents, failure to prevent escapes, failure to secure the perimeter, failure to provide activities, or denial of access to visitors, interpreters, and legal representatives. The public record over time suggests it was likely all of the above.

Serco has subcontracted MSS and Wilson to work in detention centers both offshore and onshore. If the distinction between subcontracted guards and Serco’s own staff is meaningful, it is only in the sense that they are even less likely to be properly trained, and more likely to be performing work for which they were not actually employed. An inquest condemned the “absence of basic awareness, training and capability” among Serco staff for contributing to the preventable death of Josefa Rauluni in 2010 at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. Two months after Rauluni’s death, Villawood detainees unsuccessfully tried to halt the suicide of Ahmed Al Akabi by using a cigarette lighter to burn through rope when guards did not know what to do. In the Northern Territory, the Immigration Department investigated reports that an MSS guard had been found in bed with a teenage asylum seeker, and the company was raided by authorities over evidence that it had employed dozens of unlicensed guards—including non-citizens without work rights—to supervise asylum seekers at Serco facilities. In December 2010 an approaching boat sank off the coast of Christmas Island, killing forty-eight of the mostly Iraqi and Iranian passengers on board. Both MSS and Serco staff later reported that they knew of no instructions on what to do in such a circumstance.

In 2016, The Guardian published a cache of 2,000 leaked incident reports from the Nauru detention facility. The reports, over half of which concerned children, indicated Wilson’s complicity in systemic sexual abuse, frequent assaults, squalid conditions and recurrent detainee self-harm. Wilson employees routinely pressured other workers to downgrade incident reports, minimizing the company’s possible fines and allowing it to conceal the extent of child abuse in Senate reporting. At the risk of reputational damage, both Wilson and its contractor, the infrastructure company Transfield Services, announced in 2016 that they would not continue their work on Manus and Nauru or tender for other offshore detention contracts. The contracts were, Wilson claimed, “not in line with . . . long-term strategic priorities.” Transfield changed its name to Broadspectrum. The contract had been worth $1.4 million per day; the government had no trouble finding another company to take over.

Detention facilities have remained a consistent bulwark for outsourcers’ financial returns. Serco would not have made any profit at all between 2009 and 2013 if not for its astronomically lucrative immigration detention contracts in Australia, which the company openly expressed had protected it from its own mistakes. It helps that for the Australian government it has never been about money. The government has spent $9 billion on offshore detention and processing in the last four years. It costs $573,000 a year to detain someone offshore. The security company Paladin made a profit of 22.5 percent on the $532 million it received to guard Manus Island detention from September 2017 to November 2019—above the industry average of 10–15 percent, but down from its original ask of 40 percent.

Instead, the utility of offshore detention is as a political tool. Facilities are closed in response to outcry and reopened to make a point, such that occasionally there are only a few people inside them. The current Prime Minister Scott Morrison reopened Christmas Island detention in February 2019—an election year—in retaliation for the historic defeat of his own government on legislation that would allow urgent medical evacuation of detainees on Manus and Nauru. The bill’s recklessness, Morrison declaimed, necessitated the immediate strengthening of Operation Sovereign Borders. By January 2020 nearly $27 million had been spent to keep the facility open. But for a year the only people there were a family of four, Tamil asylum seekers who had already been living in Australia in the rural town of Biloela and whose deportation was halted by injunction mid-air. Priya Nadesalingam, Nades Murugappan and their babies, then two and four: alone with a monthly-changing guard of ninety-six Serco employees.

The Biloela family, as they are sometimes known, have become a public face of Australia’s offshore detention crisis, at least to those inclined to think of it as one. The Prime Minister, who ascended his party on the immigration portfolio, expressed that he could not “in good conscience” allow the family to stay. Any exceptions to the law of hardline deterrence would shatter the rule. No matter that the Murugappans already had reached the mainland, and had built a life here without bringing on any perceivable apocalypse. They remain in various forms of detention, after almost four years and $50 million spent trying to complete their deportation. Who is responsible? When particular kinds of tragedy emerge from the background of ever-present suffering, the search begins for somebody to blame. But to consider only Serco at fault for deaths like those of Josefa Rauluni, Ahmed Al Akabi, or Fazel Chegeni is to identify the problem in the most limited sense. When private companies are hired to execute government policies that are openly intended to immiserate people, the line between architected violence and contractor delinquency begins to blur. After all, the Prime Minister could only have been speaking of his conscience insofar as we must accept him, willingly or unhappily, consciously or not, as a person vested with some power to take actions on the scale of our own.

The question of who is doing the work is therefore perhaps less important than the question of for whom it is done, and why. There are strong arguments as to why private companies should not run prisons or detention centers. But aren’t prisons and detention centers themselves the bigger problem?

While private companies should not have been given so much power over Victoria’s hotel quarantine, the program itself illuminates the swiftness with which this country reaches for tools of punitive confinement. Initial evacuations of Chinese-Australians from Wuhan in early 2020 were sent to Christmas Island. Hotel quarantine may be a comparatively benign and expedient manifestation of that impulse, but others during the pandemic have not been so, including those involving the government directly. The ultimate indicator of the utility of outsourcing for governments in shifting accountability is what governments do when they perform the same work themselves. Jackie Wang writes in Carceral Capitalism that privatization alone cannot account for the rise in mass incarceration, or its brutality. It remains, after all, extremely costly for governments. So why did the “ideological pivot away from ‘big government’” allow for an increase in carceral spending while slashing everything else? Wang posits that as the government has withdrawn from “the arena of social welfare,” the entitlement that gives the state “coherence” may now be “the entitlement of security.” The profit motive of private companies is a necessary but not sufficient feature of our present condition.

If contractor misdeeds are usually an expedient shield for state violence, when it ceases to be a convenient explanation all we are left with is the violence itself. As the quarantine scandal developed last July and Melbourne returned to lockdown, three thousand among the city’s millions were subjected to much harsher measures than the rest. The residents of nine public housing towers in the inner north-west were placed, with no warning, into a “hard lockdown” under which they were forbidden to leave their units. Many learned about it only from the sudden presence of five hundred armed police officers, who offered no information other than that residents could not leave, and who were deployed to stand guard on every floor and at the peripheries of the estates. Voices from the Block, a coalition of tower residents, noted that such concern had been absent when they months before raised the alarm to the Department of Health and Human Services that conditions in the towers were conducive to an outbreak. Residents expressed that they understood the seriousness of the virus and were willing to do what was needed, but that it was frustrating there had not been any attempt by the authorities to communicate—or to send health care professionals, interpreters, or social workers instead of a draconian police patrol.

Many in the towers have traumatic histories of detention, from their lives prior to immigrating or from the experience of immigration itself. Certainly all residents, young and old, domestically or foreign-born, share the experience of being continually surveilled and overpoliced. Hiba Shanino, a 21-year-old resident, remembers the day in primary school when she saw a newspaper article about violence on the estates and realized it was not necessarily normal to live perpetually encircled by the police. Her brother Nor once had the same officer pull him over for a full vehicle search five times in the span of a week. The tower lockdowns came after the government received the genomics report showing nearly every infection could be traced to hotel quarantine, but before their acknowledgement of its findings to the public. It’s not difficult, then, to see the theatre of swift and brutal police response as precisely in proportion to the government’s own spiraling sense of doom. When Covid-19 entered Victorian prisons in July, an organizer with Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance tweeted what a female inmate had said to them several months before: All we can hope is that you are isolating out there cos if we get covid in here we will fuckin die cos they don’t give a fuck about us in here. She did not, I note, find it meaningful to distinguish whether it was a public or private prison.

Two events in the last year clarified that we are, everything, all of us, connected. The first was the pandemic. The second was the insurrectionary rise of the Black liberation movement, which made momentarily crystalline the way the world works. The most oppressed and exploited people in the United States escalated their demand for basic rights and it could not be done, because everything else really would follow. For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, the uprisings were the first time I learned that at the relevant funding level, many of our governments spend more on police and prisons than on anything else, including education, health care, or housing.3 It was the first time I truly understood—felt deeply, with total clarity and terror—the scale of what I had before only grasped in flashes or assimilated in theory: that the system is rigged, some people never stood a chance, everything is about prisons, and no hierarchy of social value is as concrete as the one that protects capital. Many of us have been conditioned to view doctors as the peak of white-collar respectability. And yet it turns out that even their lives—based on how they have been equipped for this pandemic—are considered expendable compared to those who protect and embody the structure of power itself. What is really demonstrated by Australia’s second outbreak, by the interlinked acceleration of carceral spending? Perhaps we have never cared enough collectively about prisoners and asylum seekers because we buy into the received notion that it does not matter how people who are convicted of crimes or who “jump the queue” are treated. They have, under our punitive social logic, forfeited their right to humanity.

In those primary school lessons about the country’s founding history, Australians learn that many of the convicts originally sentenced to transportation had committed only petty crimes. Some, we are told, had hardly done so much as steal a loaf of bread.4 I suppose, among other things, these narratives assure Australians of British descent that their ancestors might barely have been criminal—not actually, not really. Today the white Australian consciousness resides in a submerged place wherein it is possible both to be proud to be connected to Britain and to venerate the convicts as originary myth—a kind of pioneering outlaw spirit. But you could say a better lesson is this: that in 18th-century Britain as today, it takes practically nothing to end up a prisoner, if you live in a carceral state that has a special interest in creating, maintaining, and disposing of a class of the poor. Crime—at least the crimes of the indigent with which society concerns itself, rather than, for example, the malfeasances of outsourcers or private security companies—has been decreasing for decades, for reasons unrelated to the number or identities of people being kept in prison. And yet the rate of imprisonment continues to rise, seemingly due to harsher policing, sentencing, and bail practices, against the backdrop of rising anxieties around immigration and whiteness. On this we know where companies like Serco stand. Has anything ever been so literal as the company’s citation of the colonization of Australia as an example of the time-honored tradition of private companies delivering “sensitive” public services? “The transportation of prisoners from the UK to Australia,” proclaims its Annual Report, “was carried out entirely by private contractors.” Its other three examples are nuclear weapons, warfare and tax collection in medieval times, and the frontline medical services of the modern-day NHS, which it notes is “widely perceived as a nationalised service.”

Australia might be the only country of its scale to have been brought to a protracted standstill during Covid-19 by a single, identifiable point of frailty in its detention–industrial complex. The effects of Victoria’s outbreak radiated outwards. Melbourne is the location of the country’s largest container port and Victoria accounts for a quarter of the national GDP; the federal government suggests over 1,000 jobs were lost every day of lockdown. I bring these things up not because I think effect on GDP is the most salient measure of a country’s pandemic response, or because what matters spiritually or factually to me is for people to be relentlessly employed, but because of the material suffering attendant upon these facts, which will be experienced most severely by the vulnerable. There was, understandably, widespread anger over the months of lockdown, the need and extent of which might have been averted. Much of the conversation focused on individuals: what guards had done, out of carelessness or selfishness, that they should not have, or what they had not done that they should’ve. But it was not so much about that, or even about a novel virus, as it was about the structure of the world. The extent to which you cannot imagine ever being put in prison or immigrant detention is the extent to which these structures are being built in your name—but recognize the likelihood of future crises like the present that will scramble and redraw the boundaries of ordinary suffering. We are told we need the private security companies, the detention centers, and the police because we live in a constitutionally dangerous and unequal world. Our work is to understand how our willingness to agree deprives us of the unconditional, non-intermediated safety that would be offered by genuine justice.

  1. Its website now reads: “Unified Security is proud to be an indigenous company and is wholly Australian owned.” 

  2. This passage, from Serco’s 2019 Annual Report, continues: “In the US, ‘Lowest Price, Technically Acceptable’ was increasingly used instead of an approach of overall ‘Best Value’ as a tender evaluation methodology.” 

  3. To take the example of Victoria: $3.5 billion was allocated to the police for 2019–2020 alone; $1.8 billion to prisons; $3 billion to education, and $5.5 billion, to be spread over four years, to health. 

  4. The Prime Minister’s forebear, for example, was transported for stealing five-and-a-half pounds of yarn, with a value of what would today be somewhere between £35 and £70. 

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