A culture of fear seems to be re-establishing itself at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC), where a recent report reveals that peaceful protests about detention have led to those concerned being transferred to prison.
The latest annual report of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), published in March 2009, reveals that in April 2008 a group of twenty-eight detainees who held a peaceful protest about their detention were intimidated and forcibly moved out by riot-trained so-called Tornado Units, and twenty-one of them were sent to prisons.
Harmondsworth’s troubled history
Harmondsworth IRC, the privately-run  centre on the fringes of Heathrow Airport, has a troubled history marked by suicides, hunger strikes and protests. In 2004, a Ukrainian asylum seeker hanged himself in the showers. The death triggered a large-scale disturbance. In January 2006, an Eritrean detainee, Bereket Johannes, committed suicide. In response, sixty-one detainees held a meeting, formed a committee and issued a statement complaining of disgusting conditions and disrespectful and degrading treatment. It was subsequently reported that all the detainees involved in the peaceful protest were moved to isolation cells by officers, and many were transferred to other removal centres.
In November 2006, inmates set fire to parts of Harmondsworth during disturbances over the treatment of detainees. An inspection by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons shortly before the disturbance found that the centre was run as if it were a high security prison and that there were high levels of oppression and bullying. During the disturbances, detainees claimed they were denied food and water for up to 40 hours, locked in overcrowded, pitch-black rooms flooded with water for more than 24 hours, forced to urinate and defecate in front of each other, and strip searched in front of several officers. Liberty sought a public inquiry into the allegations and, when this was refused, took legal action on behalf of three detainees. On 17 March 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government had breached Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment, by failing to order an independent inquiry into the allegations. Lord Justice Elias observed: ‘The inmates are in a subordinate and difficult situation – there was much evidence, for example, that many were afraid to complain of ill treatment.'
Kalyx curtails protest
The lesson which Kalyx, the company running Harmondsworth, and the UK Border Agency (UKBA) appear to have drawn from the disturbances, the inspections and the litigation does not appear to be a positive one of seeking to put their house in order. In particular, the causes of major frustration for detainees – the length of detention (which can exceed two years), the lack of information or progress on cases, and the frequent moves around the detention estate, often with little or no notice, which have been the subject of complaints by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and by the Representatives of the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture – have not been effectively addressed. Instead, as the IMB report finds, Kalyx and UKBA have ‘taken robust action to prevent the build-up of any articulate group of detainees expressing dissatisfaction with their detention by moving detainees seen as troublemakers to prisons or other IRCs’. As the report adds, this approach ‘has, on occasion, had negative consequences for individual detainees who may have been moved out of the Centre simply for mounting a peaceful protest’.
For example, ‘On 1 April  about 30 detainees told Kalyx staff that they were very unhappy about issues related to their immigration status and they refused to leave one of the courtyards at the 11pm curfew time. Some stayed outside until 4am. Kalyx kept the situation calm by offering hot drinks and access to toilets. The next day UKBA local staff held a surgery in one of the dining halls answering detainees’ questions as best they could and detainees were polite and well mannered. Some of the issues raised by detainees were: lack of information from UKBA; not being listened to by UKBA; bail being always refused; immigration judges not being independent of UKBA; transfer to an IRC nearer home being refused; being beaten at the airport; cases taking a long time; complaints that people should not continue in custody after the end of a prison sentence; and why was not tagging more readily available [as an alternative to detention].’
Despite the entirely peaceful nature of the protest, the politeness of the detainees seeking information, and the patent legitimacy of their complaints, the IMB report continues: ‘Kalyx became concerned about intimidation of other detainees and the possibility of a disturbance. The decision was made to move out 28 detainees on 5 April with the use of Tornado Units (units of prison officers and detention custody officers who are specially trained in anti-riot techniques).’
The men to be moved (including one man in a wheelchair) were brought to the sports hall at 6am and confronted with two lines of ‘Tornado’ officers in full riot gear. They were made to sit on low benches, facing the silent riot officers, for several hours, during which time no food or drink was offered to them. Twenty-seven were moved out (the man in the wheelchair was not moved owing to lack of suitable transport), twenty-one of whom were sent to prisons.
The IMB report concluded that the arrangement in the sports hall ‘felt very intimidating (intentionally so)’. But what justification did Kalyx have for bringing in the dreadfully named ‘Tornado Units’ to intimidate these detainees and transfer them, most to prisons? Solely, it seems, the fact that they had peacefully voiced serious complaints. It is just this type of behaviour by Kalyx and UKBA which, as the IMB found, creates ‘major frustration’ and could lead to another disturbance.
Another damaging response to the 2006 disturbances is to rebuild half of Harmondsworth to a prison design. As the Board points out, ‘To be secure an IRC does not need to look and feel like a prison’. It is also concerned at the design, which incorporates partially screened toilets inside shared cells where some inmates eat – an arrangement which the Board members do not think ‘consistent with common decency or dignity’.
The misery of detention is reflected in the statistic of ninety-eight incidents of actual self-harm during 2008. The board ‘continues to be extremely concerned about the provision of support for those with mental health issues, the difficulty of getting external agencies involved and the appropriateness of immigration detention for people with significant mental health needs’.
IMB denied access to detainees’ complaints
The other significant complaint in the IMB’s report is the UKBA’s denial of access to complaints by detainees. Instead, from 1 December 2008, they were to be given monthly or quarterly summaries and statistics. They complained: ‘If this is allowed to stand it will be a serious diminution of the function of IMB’s ….’ It is outrageous that the independent body set up to monitor the treatment and welfare of detainees is not allowed to see their complaints. The UKBA is citing ‘data protection issues’. Perhaps they mean ‘UKBA protection issues’, or ‘go away and leave us alone’. Fortunately, the men and women of the IMB are made of sterner stuff.
Postscript: Kalyx was unsuccessful in the renewed bid to manage the centre, which is being taken over by GEO (which runs Campsfield) from the end of June 2009. In April 2009, a US appeals court upheld an award of $42.5 million in punitive damages against GEO, formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corp, for the ‘horrific and gruesome’ death in 2001 of inmate Gregorio De La Rosa Jr, who was beaten to death by two other inmates while guards and supervisors looked on. The appeal court described the company’s conduct as ‘clearly reprehensible’ and ‘a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and for the state’s civil justice system’ following revelations that the prison warden had destroyed or lied about crucial evidence.
Read the IMB 2008 annual report on Harmondsworth immigration removal centre