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Prison watchdog slams refugee conditions

Australia's detention centers have experienced numerous riots and protests  

By CNN's Grant Holloway

PERTH, Australia -- One of Australia's prison watchdogs has launched a searing attack on conditions in the nation's immigration detention centers.

The Western Australian Inspector of Custodial Services Professor Richard Harding said Tuesday the centers were "unacceptably overcrowded" and their medical services were "disgracefully inadequate".

He also cited a lack of accountability for conditions in the centers and called for an independent inspection system to be set up.

Some of the detention centers have been the scene of repeated protests, hunger strikes and riots over the past 12 months, a situation Harding attributes to the poor conditions.

"It is no coincidence that riots occur in a system that lacks accountability," Harding told a meeting of the International Corrections and Prisons Association in Perth.

"Anyone who knows the simplest thing about prison riots knows also that unacceptable conditions against which there is no recourse … are the precursor to riots," Harding said.

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"We do not have riots in our detention centers because we have a riotous group of refugees. We have them because we run appalling systems."

The management of the detention facilities was also roundly criticized in February this year in an independent inquiry called the Flood Report.

That report included charges of detention center staff humiliating and abusing inmates and of treating children like criminals.

The man ultimately responsible for conditions in the centers, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock admitted Tuesday there was overcrowding in the centers but said the situation was improving as fewer asylum seekers were now allowed into Australia.

Ruddock denied conditions were disgraceful.

"In terms of the way in which people are detained our approach is humane, people do get a higher level of service and I would say in relation to dental and medical services, the level of service available to detainees would be of a higher order than many people in regional and remote Australia receive," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports Ruddock saying.

Harding, who was appointed to the newly created post last year, visited the Curtin Detention Center in Western Australia in June.

Inmates intimidated

He described dental treatment there as consisting of a dentist who visited once every five or six weeks, whose main task was to pull out teeth in makeshift facilities.

Apart from overcrowding and inadequate medical services, Harding also said the education services offered were "largely a charade" and said there was little opportunity for detainees to engage in constructive activity.

There was also some evidence that detainees who wanted to complain about conditions were intimidated by staff, he said.

Harding said an independent inspection service for the detention centers, including those recently built on the Pacific island nation of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea, would go some way to alleviating Australia's "sullied reputation" regarding refugee treatment.

Reputation besmirched

Since mid-August Australia has adopted a controversial zero-tolerance policy on asylum seekers, refusing to let any of the boatloads of people arriving at the nation's remote island outpost territories to set foot in Australia.

Instead it has brokered deals with Pacific Island nations such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea to build and maintain detention centers there.

While politically popular within Australia, the hardline stance on refugees has won the country few friends internationally.

"Australia's reputation for fairness and accountability has been besmirched over the last two or three years," Harding said.

"It will never be rectified until the main policies on refugees are sorted out."

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