Visiting a detainee

It is a big, new carpark, and in the early afternoon there are a couple of hundred vehicles in the visitors’ section. Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. I’ve come to see an old mate of mine who is awaiting deportation to New Zealand. He is not a ‘boat person’.

He came to Australia as an infant, but he is not a citizen. He is, I guess, an ‘undesirable’, being deported for his criminal activities. Back in January he was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to malicious damage and common assault, namely smashing a window and shouting a lot of abuse. He has served about three months for those crimes, but that sentence has been added to nine months he served twenty-five years ago and together the periods of incarceration add up to a trigger for deportation.

I began the process of visiting ‘Henry’ some weeks before. No-one had told me that he was in gaol, his phone had just gone dead and, from Newcastle, that cut off contact. Then he rang me about his release, could I pick him up from Long Bay on a certain day and hour? So there I was in another carpark at the appointed time, and there I still was three hours later when I received a call from ‘inside’. He was not being released to me, as per my discussions with the parole service, but to Border Force officers, for transport to Villawood pending deportation. The Corrective Services guy had the goodness to sound a little embarrassed that this came as news not only to Henry and me, but also to the prison service and to parole.

So now I was at Villawood. Visiting arrangements here are pretty liberal. You can visit any afternoon, seven days a week. There are systems, of course, and as in all systems there are hiccups. The Villawood IDF website had told to submit a request 24 hours prior to visiting. The email link below took me to a blank form, so I wrote a request and sent it off. Fairly shortly afterwards I got an email back telling me to submit the ‘Visitor Request Form’. Another search revealed that this was a few pages down in the Immigration Department’s main ‘Detention’ website, not on the Villawood site at all. So you send it in. There’s no acknowledgement, but when you turn up on the day your name is on the list at visitor reception and all is well. You also have to have a hard copy of the form with you, which you may not have guessed, but you can fill one in on the spot and return to the back of the queue. If you’re an old-timer, you’ve already put your phone and cash and stuff in one of the electronic combination lockers, unless it’s day when they’re not working, in which case you surrender your ID at reception and get a key to an old-style locker. There can be glitches, then, but it’s all simple enough when you know the routines, and most of the visitors clearly know them, and the fall-backs, very well indeed. Later, inside, Henry introduces me to another detainee waiting to go to New Zealand who has been in Villawood for nine months so far.

Once through the scanners and double-doored ‘air lock type’ exit from reception, the actual visiting experience is pretty good. The visitors’ centre is large and new, well furnished with comfortable chairs and tables. You can take in food and even microwave your meal, and there are tea and coffee facilities. There’s a large outdoor patio/garden area as well and even a smoking area. You’ve signed up to limiting your physical contact with the detainee to appropriate greetings and farewells, but that doesn’t seem to be a big issue. You can stay all afternoon if you like, form a group with others, sit, stroll. It’s not bad. And, according to Henry, life inside is not bad either. He hasn’t taken to his case officer, but the classes and activities that earn him points for spending money are pretty good and most people are friendly enough. It’s definitely better than gaol. The main cloud hanging over Henry is that, because he’s not agreeing to go to New Zealand, and because he’s not getting many visitors and so doesn’t need to be in Villawood in particular, there is talk of sending him to Christmas Island. I agree to visit as often as I can!

I hope I’m being fair to the system by just describing my experience. That experience is limited and, as to the inner workings, solely dependent on what Henry tells me. The detainees’ chief burdens are that they don’t know how long they will be there and they don’t have a clear idea of the arcane processes that will determine their fate. Your case officer tells you one thing and something else happens. Your psychologist tells you what she is recommending but the decision from officialdom is quite the opposite. The waiting, the not knowing, and the sudden announcement of new decisions, these are the principal problems of detainees. The day-to-day is not too bad, at least here on the mainland and in the city.

I have just one further observation on Villawood IDC. It sits in its suburb in utter anonymity. The older parts of the former migrant hostel front two suburban streets, but there is no signage whatsoever to indicate what is behind those walls and fences. There are no street signs anywhere directing you to the centre. When you do find it by the street address, it is half a mile down a dead-end in an industrial estate and is simply a driveway between two factories that bears only the simple sign ‘No through road’. That may be significant.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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