A report on the inspection of Haslar Immigration Removal Centre, conducted in May by Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers, has elucidated a number of serious concerns regarding the safety, accommodation and legal representation of detainees.
Some custody staff at Haslar, which is run by the Prison Service on behalf of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), were found to be routinely carrying staves and one is known to have been drawn on a recent occasion. The ‘routine deployment’ of weaponry, said the report, ‘in a centre holding those not convicted of any criminal offence is intimidating and, significantly, is not regarded as necessary in private sector removal centres’.
The report emphasises the lack of systems to examine and tackle any potential victimisation of the detainees and identifies this as ‘a serious weakness’. There is no confidential system for reporting bullying and anti-bullying is given little attention. The detainees raised the issue of ‘cultural misunderstanding’, explaining that the term ‘bullying’ has different meanings among different nationalities and suggesting that a lack of certainty about what constitutes bullying makes it less likely that detainees will report instances of it.
In addition, the report reveals that the legal rights of the detainees are not being adequately addressed. There is no on-site independent legal advice and half of the detainees have no legal representative. Of those who have secured representation, less than a quarter have been visited by their representative. The standard of advice available is described in the report as ‘sometimes questionable’. Voluntary bodies that regularly visit detainees report high levels of uncertainty about status and legal rights.
The report also criticises structural elements of the Haslar building, which is located in Gosport, Hampshire. According to Anne Owers, ‘the poor fabric of this ageing facility means that without major investment it will never offer the standard of accommodation that is appropriate to house immigration detainees’. The dormitories, providing accommodation for up to 160 male detainees, are deemed ‘unsuitable for purpose’ as they lack privacy and are overly noisy and bright. Three of the six dormitories are partitioned into cubicles with walls that do not extend to the ceiling, and with open doorways. The lack of doors may contribute to the large number of detainees (74% of survey respondents) who feel unsafe at some point. The report calls for the redecoration of shower facilities and the use of deep-cleaning in some areas. The bare walls in most of the residential areas increase ‘the bleak institutional feel of the dormitories’, whilst the use of ‘a loud and intrusive tannoy system’ causes much irritation and frustration amongst detainees and some staff.
The new vehicles used by GSL UK Limited, which is contracted to escort detainees to and from Haslar, are also subjected to fierce criticism in the report. The seating is identified as cramped and unsuitable for transporting detainees over large distances. The transparent glass windows enable passers-by to watch the passengers and, in a few recorded instances, to abuse them.
More positively, the report included details of improvements which have been made to Haslar since the last inspection in March 2004: new fire prevention arrangements, a ‘cleaner and brighter’ environment, a new telephone translation service, improved education provision, a voluntary work scheme and a pilot welfare officer.
The main recommendations of the report focus on the need for an immediate review of the adequacy of the new escort vehicles, an end to the routine carrying and use of weaponry, a greater focus on anti-bullying issues, the implementation of a major rebuilding and refurbishment programme, and an expansion of the voluntary work scheme whilst the prohibition on detainees engaging in paid work is reviewed.
Home Office Minister Tony McNulty welcomed the findings and ‘the significant improvements made at Haslar since the last inspection’. He acknowledged that Haslar was an ‘old building’ and revealed that ‘a programme of refurbishment and modernisation is currently being considered’. In response to the criticism of escort vehicles, McNulty commented that ‘these vehicles provide sufficient space’ but added that all vehicles now have smoked glass windows to protect detainees from outside view.