Harmondsworth expansion adds to risk

Harmondsworth expansion adds to risk


Written by: Frances Webber

According to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) Dame Anne Owers’ latest critical report, small improvements at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC) will be jeopardised by the opening of new prison-like accommodation there.

Harmondsworth was the first immigration detention centre, where inmates were held in Victorian prison-like accommodation. It became a byword for brutality and racism and a site of frequent protests, escape attempts, hunger strikes and a number of suicides – and this reputation survived its complete rebuilding as a 550-bed immigration removal centre (IRC) in 2001. A large proportion of the incidents of violence in the Medical Justice report Outsourcing Abuse came from there in the years up to 2004. In that year and again in November 2006, the centre erupted in disturbances which rendered half its accommodation unusable. The 2006 disturbances were triggered by staff refusing to allow detainees to watch TV coverage of a highly critical HMCIP inspection report, ‘the poorest we have ever issued on an IRC’, which found that two-thirds of detainees felt unsafe and nearly half said they had been victimised by staff. Detainees subsequently sued the Home Office alleging assaults and degrading treatment during the disturbances. A January 2008 race relations audit found that regular taunting of detainees by some officers went unchallenged, and in April 2008 twenty-eight detainees, who held a peaceful protest about their detention, were intimidated and forcibly moved out by riot-trained guards and some were transferred to prisons. (Read an IRR News story: ‘Peaceful protest punished’)

Disorienting transfers

The problem of ‘excessive and disorienting transfers’ around the detention estate persists, and is one of the main issues raised by HMCIP’s latest report, the result of an announced inspection in January 2010. At the time of the inspection there were 213 detainees, all male, from thirty-one countries. The largest number were from Afghanistan (thirty-four). Sixty-eight per cent of new arrivals had arrived from another removal centre, and twenty per cent of respondents had been in six or more centres. Often, transfers occur without notice or explanation – in one case a detainee had fifteen minutes to collect belongings, inform his family and legal representative, and say goodbye to friends – and frequently take place at night. Such transfers undermine detainees’ rights to maintenance of their family and private life (guaranteed by the detention centre rules) by making visits from family and friends difficult, as well as making continuity of legal representation virtually impossible. They also have profoundly disruptive effects on detainees’ welfare.

Lengthy detention

Detainee movements is of course the responsibility of UK Border Agency (UKBA), not the contractor. So is another of the major problems referred to in this report, over-lengthy detention. Over ten per cent of detainees had been held for over six months, and one had been held for over three years, with no prospect of his removal – a situation prima facie unlawful but one which staff at the centre were unable to resolve.

The indefinite nature of detention, which causes detainees enormous stress, is exacerbated by UKBA failure to keep them informed about the asylum procedure, the progress of their cases or their continuing detention. The official report into the disturbances of 28-29 November 2006 pointed out that: ‘Much benefit would be gained, and much frustration relieved, by giving more attention to basic office disciplines and courtesies such as answering faxes, returning phone calls, checking information is accurate, and giving regular updates.’ UKBA does not seem to have followed this advice. The monthly review of detention required by the rules, to ensure that the need for continuing detention is properly considered on a regular basis, is ‘frequently late or uninformative’ according to HMCIP. In most cases it is merely a thoughtless box-ticking exercise, and frequently fails to take into account the presentation of new evidence by detainees or other new developments. In one case documented in the report, someone detained for three months still had been given no reasons – a breach of Article 5 of the European Human Rights Convention. Detainees applying for bail often do not receive the Home Office document summarising the reasons for objecting to bail until they get to the hearing. This is a gross breach of fair procedures, since it leaves (usually unrepresented) detainees unprepared to deal with the objections, which are frequently based on factual errors.

Inadequate legal help

No information about legal rights and no up-to-date legal materials were available in the centre. Interviews of unrepresented asylum seekers were not tape recorded as required by Home Office policy, nor were detainees allowed the option of deferring asylum interviews in the fast-track system if they had been unable to obtain legal assistance. This is compounded by UKBA’s failure to ensure through the Legal Service Commission (LSC) the provision of sufficient legal resources in the centre. An LSC-funded legal surgery is only open for ten hours a week and can see only twenty detainees, so is booked up a fortnight in advance. But someone who is subjected to the asylum fast-track process cannot wait two weeks for a legal surgery appointment. And seventy-four per cent of Harmondsworth beds (191) are assigned to the fast-track. The refusal rate in fast-track cases is ninety-nine per cent.

The inspection also revealed that where detainees had lawyers, the lawyers’ letters to detainees were routinely copied for detainees’ files. This is in breach of detention centre rules requiring confidentiality of correspondence, and is a serious breach of lawyer-client confidentiality.

UKBA inhumanity

UKBA policies ignore or appear to run directly counter to detention centre rules and detainees’ welfare. For example, UKBA’s insistence on a presumption that detainees needed to be handcuffed on escort outside the centres (including for medical appointments), referred to in the report, seems to run counter to the rule requiring that proper care must be taken to protect persons being taken to or from a detention centre in custody from public ‘curiosity and insult’. In this instance, staff were praised by HMCIP for using their own judgment to decide whether handcuffs were needed, frequently deciding they were not.

Vulnerable people at risk

The privatised healthcare system at Harmondsworth, as elsewhere in the detention estate, was heavily criticised in this inspection as ‘failing to deliver a responsive or caring service’, and was the biggest cause of complaint among detainees. Inspectors described witnessing ‘several brusque and sometimes patronising responses from nursing and administrative staff toward detainees’. It is one of the most serious failings of immigration detention that detainees are condemned to non-NHS sub-standard health care. Allied to this, in Harmondsworth, incidents of self-harm had increased but no counselling was available, although a pilot project has begun involving the Samaritans. Even more concerning is the fact that letters from the centre’s medical practitioners, expressing concern that detainees should not be detained, might have been subjected to torture or have mental health problems, are not responded to and acted on promptly by UKBA. In one case documented in the report, a centre doctor had stated that the detainee had scabs on his back that ‘looked like stubbed-out cigarettes’, but the UKBA caseworker had considered there was ‘no diagnosis finding’ about the injuries (which would have required release). The report also refers to the case of a mentally ill man detained for over two years, where medical advice that continuing detention is exacerbating his illness has simply been ignored. UKBA policy on the detention of mentally ill people ‘did not appear always to be followed’, according to the report, meaning that mentally ill people who should not be detained are being held there, but not adequately treated. Disabilities frequently went unheeded and children whose age was disputed sometimes had to wait six weeks or more for a social services age assessment to secure their release.

Improvements: ‘free flow’

But for all these indices of continuing failure, there was some good news. In contrast to the situation in 2006, most detainees now felt safe at the centre, and there were fewer complaints of bullying or victimisation. The biggest single cause of the improved atmosphere seems to be the introduction by GEO (the contractor running Campsfield IRC in Oxfordshire, which took over the contract for the running of Harmondsworth from Kalyx in mid-2009) of ‘free flow’, allowing detainees freedom of movement from the residential areas to the centre’s facilities and activity areas, including the outside courtyards, for most of the day. The relaxation in restrictions had been accompanied by a decrease in the number of incidents, from 849 in the first half of 2009 to 680 in the second half. The use of force by staff had decreased to thirty occasions in six months (just over once a week) from thirty-eight in the previous six months and forty-three in the six months before that – and the use of temporary confinement in cells as a punishment – previously common, and used to shut down peaceful protests – was down to five occasions a month. HMCIP observed that there was little recorded use of force on the part of GEO staff in effecting removals, and there was no evidence of allegations of unjustified or excessive force.

Allowing detainees free access to all areas within the centre is what the detention centre rules require. Rule 3 sets out the purpose of centres as providing the ‘secure but humane accommodation of detainees in a relaxed regime, with as much freedom of movement and association as possible consistent with maintaining a safe and secure environment’. The rule requires staff to encourage and assist detainees to make the most productive use of their time, respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression. Elsewhere, the rules require due recognition to be given to the need for awareness of the particular anxieties to which detainees may be subject.

Back to the cells

It is not rocket science that greater freedom of movement tends to a more relaxed regime which results in fewer explosions of tension. So it is no surprise that HMCIP ended her report with an expression of great concern about ‘the potential impact of the new building, about to be opened in June. This would provide prison-type accommodation, in small and somewhat oppressive cells – at odds with the atmosphere and facilities in the current centre. It would also double the population, making Harmondsworth the biggest removal centre in Europe.’ According to the GEO website, a 364 bed expansion will bring the total accommodation to 615 beds. But it appears that the new accommodation is in cells – which appears to contravene the detention centre rules, as well as threatening to undermine the improved atmosphere of the centre at Harmondsworth.

The official report into the 2006 disturbances gave as their main causes ‘population pressures and the impact of Foreign National Prisoners [and] concern about the progress of immigration cases, long and unexpected periods in detention, and uncertainty about outcomes’, as well as frequent movements around the detention estate. Immigration detention is an injustice which will always provoke anger and frustration as well as despair, enhanced by the continuing failures of UKBA to acknowledge detainees’ rights to fair procedures, legal help and basic dignity. Locking people up in small and oppressive cells cannot but exacerbate these feelings further, leading to a vicious circle of protest and repression.

Related links

Read the Harmondsworth inspection report here (pdf file, 498kb)

Read the Report of the Investigation into the disturbances at Harmondsworth and Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centres here (pdf file, 353kb)

Read the Medical Justice report: Outsourcing Abuse

Medical Justice

Report on an announced inspection of Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre 11-15 January 2010 by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, May 2010.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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