US prison company Management and Training Corporation (MTC) has signed a deal with the federal Labor government to take over the running of Australia’s refugee prison on Nauru. The company will be awarded $47.3 million to oversee the detention of 111 refugees over a two-month period. At a time when the ALP government is telling us all to tighten our belts, it will be spending $425,000 for each refugee to be detained for two months for the “crime” of seeking safety in another country.

MTC is the third largest private prison operator in the US and has a history of negligence and human rights violations within its facilities. In 2006, a civil case was filed against the company after dangerous levels of understaffing led to the assault of a woman detained for drink driving. After being left alone in the booking area, where a minimum of four staff members should have been present, the woman mistakenly walked into a prison cell where several male inmates locked the door and sexually assaulted her. 

According to the Guardian, after reporting the assault to prison authorities, the woman was “interrogated, then put in an empty cell by herself for two hours before being taken to hospital for a medical examination. Upon her return to the prison, she was allegedly strip-searched by guards, an act described in her civil claim as ‘utterly useless and unnecessary’ which caused her ‘further humiliation and degradation’”.

A lawsuit has also been filed against the company over the unlawful detention of US citizen Carlos Murillo Vega for a 14-month period, almost all of which was spent in solitary confinement. The lawsuit, which describes Vega’s detention as “torture”, concludes that MTC “traffics in human captivity for profit”. The company was also taken to court in Mississippi over an ongoing scheme that involved paying bribes to state officials in exchange for department prison contracts.

It is in no way surprising that the Australian government would choose such a company to manage a detention regime renowned for its cruelty. Since the Australian government started detaining refugees who arrive by boat, the barbarity has progressively worsened. It was under the Gillard government in 2012 that offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island was reintroduced, followed by Rudd’s promise in 2013 that “as of today, refugees who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”. 

The hellhole conditions faced by refugees have repeatedly come out, with the leaked “Nauru files” reporting 2,000 incidents of harm or threatened harm to asylum seekers over a three-year period—frequent self-harm and suicide attempts, humiliation and assault by guards and the denial of proper medical treatment. 

Labor’s callous treatment of refugees laid the basis for Operation Sovereign Borders, introduced by former Prime Minister Tony Abbot and continued under successive Liberal governments, which towed refugee boats to Indonesia or back to where they came from, and the silencing of detention centre staff from speaking out about abuse.

In the lead-up to the last federal election, Anthony Albanese committed to the continuation of Operation Sovereign Borders under a Labor government. While the ALP has used its granting of permanent protection to the Murugappan family to paint itself as humane, the reality is that it is just as bad as the Liberals on refugees. As previous Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani wrote in the Guardian, “Nothing has changed until there are 200 more Biloela families returned to Australia from Nauru and Port Moresby, and until threats of deportation, re-detention, or return to PNG or Nauru end”.

The taking over of the Nauru detention regime by MTC is the latest iteration of bipartisan cruelty towards refugees. Not only is the company renowned for its mistreatment of inmates, but, according to government sources that spoke to the Guardian, the contract includes a “reduction in welfare services for refugees in the community”. 

Since the shutting down of the Manus Island detention centre after the PNG Supreme Court ruled it unlawful, Nauru has remained Australia’s only offshore processing centre. While refugees are allowed to live in community housing, they are nonetheless stuck on the island indefinitely in inhumane conditions, with services set to become even more inadequate. Any newly arriving refugees will initially be processed though the detention centre. The impact of this ongoing situation is reflected in reporting by the Guardian that many on the island are “battling chronic physical and mental health conditions that have made even applying for resettlement difficult”. 

It is no wonder that this announcement comes alongside a budget that will allow living conditions for workers to deteriorate further. The bipartisan torture of refugees has always been used as a way to normalise the brutal treatment of society’s most vulnerable and to blame those seeking a better life in Australia for declining standards of living. 

It is criminal that the government is spending more than $40 million to imprison 111 innocent people fleeing wars and persecution. This money should be spent on social services and wage increases, and every refugee languishing on Nauru should be allowed to live in freedom in Australia. Company profits should not be made out of human misery, and governments should not traffic in human captivity for political gain.