When Waka Waka woman Naomi Murphy was told her work in community would be recognised with a community NAIDOC Award at the 2019 Voices For Change Women's Lunch she was ecstatic, but her excitement soon turned to disappointment when she discovered the sponsor of the event was controversial multinational company, Serco.
Serco operates many private prisons and immigration detention centres in Australia, New Zealand and England.
In Australia, the company operates Acacia Prison in Western Australia, where as recently as a few weeks ago there was a death in custody.
“They’ve got mob over here standing up and taking NAIDOC awards when there’s that poor family over in Western Australia grieving. He was only 30-years-old,” Ms Murphy told NITV News.
“To me it was a no brainer, what’s another award if it’s tainted. To me it’s like a blood awards, you know.”
Ms Murphy has had her own experiences with the prison system as have her friends, family and others in the community, she said.
“I’ve currently got two family members in prison in South Australia and we’ve got Sorry Business going on and they’re going to be released for the day to come to their mother's – my Aunty's– funeral,” she said.
“That’s two close family members of mine. I can’t be standing up there getting awards and thinking of my two cousins over there in jail, grieving, with no family members to hug them or to console them.”
Serco also holds the national contract for immigration detention, which includes Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre and an offshore centre on Christmas Island.
At the Christmas Island centre there have been previous allegations of Serco staff beating prisoners and increased incidents of self harm since the contract was won.
In a statement provided to NITV News, a representative for the company said Christmas Island has never housed prisoners, but does house detainees under the Immigration Act.
The representative also said there are no credible allegations of any "beating", nor increases in self harm at the facility.
Organiser of the event, Dennis Batty, from Indigenous Employment Partners (IEP) said because this year’s NAIDOC theme is Voice, Treaty, Truth, the theme for the event was 'Voices for Change'.
“We were well aware of attitudes to Serco when we invited one of Serco’s strongest critics to accept an award and make a speech," Mr Batty told NITV News.
“We were hoping that the event would be a safe space for people to speak their own truths. While we were disappointed that one of Serco’s many critics chose not to attend and have her voice heard among many other strong women, we respect her decision."
Mr Batty said while he was disappointed that Ms Murphy declined the award, he recognises that NAIDOC Week is an important time for organisations to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.
"Many voices telling difficult truths must be heard by Serco... If we resile from telling these difficult truths and the conversations which follow, then nothing will change," he said.
A representative of Serco said it had been unaware of any such complaints or community backlash from their sponsorship of the event.
"It is disappointing that there was criticism for a genuine program and support but people have a right to voice their opinion and we respect that," the representative said.
While Serco operates prisons, they say staff work alongside the IEP on a work program to reduce the risk of reoffending within communities.
"Over the past two years we have worked with IEP to employ young Indigenous men in and around Melbourne. Many of these men have been imprisoned and our program with IEP ensures employment and training to help break the cycle of reoffending," an earlier statement from the company read.
"The “Power to Work” program supports Aboriginal men and women to enter/re-enter the workforce. This program goes beyond job placements.
"It has been co-designed with the community to ensure that is considers all critical elements of one’s life, including but not limited to safe and affordable housing, legal and financial advocacy and support, relapse prevention, and holistic family empowerment."
– This article has been updated to include a response from Serco regarding allegations pertaining to Christmas Island and to clarify that the company operates but does not own prisons or detention facilities in Australia.