Villawood's drug crisis revealed: 'Whatever you wanted you could get'

Exclusive: SBS News reveals the drug problem inside Australia’s largest immigration detention centre.

New Zealander Justin Miller has seen the inside of many Australian prisons, but it was while awaiting deportation at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney that he saw the most drugs.

“Whatever you wanted you could get your hands on it in there,” the 40-year-old told SBS News from Christchurch, where he has been since he was deported in April.

“I’ve seen ice in there, I’ve seen ‘bupe’ [a heroin substitute] ... a lot of marijuana.”

Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre is the largest detention centre in Australia.
Source: SBS News

Exclusive figures obtained by SBS News under freedom of information laws reveal Miller’s experience is far from the exception.

Department of Home Affairs documents detail an extensive drug problem inside Australia’s largest detention centre, amid concerns not enough is being done to tackle the problem.

They show there were up to 126 drug seizure incidents recorded inside Villawood in 2017 - more than two a week.

Some of the drugs seized in Villawood in 2017.
Source: SBS

Unidentified pills and powder made up the largest portion of the seizures (45 cases), followed by almost 30 instances involving medications, including in one seizure of four Viagra pills.

Marijuana or unidentified vegetable matter was discovered in 16 cases, and there were at least five cases involving a crystal-like substance or ice.

In many cases, the drugs were found during searches of a detainee’s room.

The figures “surprised” the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s Kate Dolan, who has been studying drug use in the prison system for about 25 years.

“It seemed like every other day there was some drug being found in there,” she told SBS News.

Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre is the largest detention centre in Australia.
Source: AAP

“I believe there’s only about 400 [people] inside [Villawood], so to have that many drugs being found, there would be a sizable drug problem in there.”

To have that many drugs being found, there would be a sizable drug problem in there. 

- Kate Dolan

Detainees at Villawood comprise a growing proportion of “Section 501” cases - non-citizens to be deported after breaching the character test set out in the Migration Act, including having a criminal record.

Of the 467 detainees in Villawood as of June, 148 were those awaiting Section 501 deportations. Only 97 were asylum seekers. A further 222 belonged to “other detention groups”.

Miller, who was sent to Villawood in October following an eight-month prison term for robbery and assault, following previous offences, was at the facility during a time overlapping the data obtained by SBS News.

Staff from Serco, which runs the detention centre, would search a detainee’s room “only if you gave them a reason to,” he said, adding that while he had not directly witnessed it himself, he believed drugs were being smuggled in by visitors or staff.

An Australian Border Force spokesperson said there had been an increase in illegal activity as a growing number of “higher risk” detainees were being held in detention centres ahead of their deportation. Searches were a “key disruptive strategy” that had led to more than 1,300 instances of contraband, including drugs, being discovered in the last financial year.

“Almost half of these incidents occurred within Villawood Immigration Detention Centre,” the spokesperson said.

But Professor Dolan said it was “almost impossible” to stop drugs from getting inside such facilities, “so the best thing to is to do drug treatment programs, which we know work”.

Professor Kate Dolan has been researching drugs in prisons for two-and-a-half decades.

She was unaware of any work done to better understand the nature of the problem inside Australia’s detention centres. The department had previously approached her about undertaking some research “but somehow it got dropped,” she said.

“They didn’t give a reason,” she said, adding that in many cases the documents did not seem to properly establish what drugs had been found.

“Research is crucial. Once we know what’s going on, the nature of the problem the scale of the problem, we can address it.”

“I would guess the Immigration Department could do a fair bit more.”

Miller, who has previously battled an ice addiction, said while in Villawood he requested to be put on a drug rehabilitation program, which he describes as being limited to “10 minutes over five days”.

“I’ve done a drug and alcohol course in prison before and compared to the prison one it was nothing,” he said. “It was more a bit of paper.”

“They don’t take it seriously at all, only once it comes to someone passing away from using drugs or something. That’s the only time I’ve seen anything.”

The scale of the drug problem inside Villawood was unwelcome news to Hera Peihopa, whose son Robert, a 42-year-old New Zealand national and father of four, died following a fight while in the detention centre in 2016.

“Rob was a really big-hearted guy, he had the best intentions for people. He loved people," she said. 

"We all have our demons.” 

Hera Peihopa's son Robert died in Villawood in 2016.
Source: SBS

The coroner last year found the ice in Peihopa’s system was a contributing factor to his death due to a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, 10 months into his detention while awaiting deportation on character grounds after multiple criminal convictions.

The coroner recommended that alongside improving drug detection measures, the department should investigate ways to improve its programs for those in detention battling addiction.

Border Force did not respond to a question from SBS News regarding the centre’s rehabilitation programs.

The spokesman instead emphasised proposed laws would "add to the Australian government's uncompromising approach" to maintaining order in the detention network. They would beef up search powers, as well as the ability to restrict some items such as mobile phones - a proposal already criticised by refugee advocates.

“Existing search and seizure powers in the Migration Act are not sufficient to prevent narcotic drugs or other items of concern within the centres and at access points for staff, visitors and detainees.”

Ms Peihopa agreed more needed to be done to stem the flow of drugs but said authorities should also offer better services for those battling addictions, as her son had been in the lead up to his death.

“They are under a lot of stress, and the dynamics about being in a place like that and trying to survive,” she said. “They will resort to something to numb that down.”

Without changes, she feared another death would be inevitable.

“It will happen again,” she said.

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Published 24 September 2018 at 6:19am, updated 25 September 2018 at 3:53pm
By Jarni Blakkarly, Leesha McKenny