Concern is mounting that the issues behind the recent disturbance at Harmondsworth detention centre – the apparent failure of the private firms which run detention centres to provide full care to detainees and the emerging evidence of assaults by officers – will be ignored as prosecutions of at least seventeen detainees proceed.
On 19 July 2004, Harmondsworth fast-track immigration removal centre suffered a disturbance and was damaged by a fire. What triggered the events of that night was the apparent suicide of an asylum seeker, a 31-year-old Ukrainian man, who was found hanged in his cell in the late hours. It is thought that the man had received bad news about his asylum claim. Rumours quickly circulated around the centre that a man had died during an attempted deportation and led to detainees damaging furniture and property. Some fires were also set but were quickly extinguished by sprinklers. No one was hurt in the disturbance despite detainees, reportedly, being left in the burning building as staff retreated for their own safety.
The disturbance at Harmondsworth led to the transfer of the 440 detainees at the centre to other immigration detention centres and prisons across the UK. One of those sixty men transferred to Dungavel removal centre in Scotland, a 23-year-old Vietnamese man, was found hanged four days later on 23 July.
Conditions in immigration detention
According to a former detainee in Harmondsworth, who wishes to remain anonymous, conditions have been poor for some time. ‘The conditions at the centre weren’t good, people were very unhappy’ he told IRR News. About the night of the fire he said ‘they [Harmondsworth guards/management] closed the wing and then ran away. Everyone was scared and frightened, people tried to get out and they couldn’t. I can’t believe they left people inside that building, they should have taken us somewhere safe, but they ran away.’ After the fire, he alleges detainees were treated like criminals. ‘We were searched, had our photographs taken, I had to remove all of my clothes and we were give no food for many hours.’ He was moved along with twenty-seven others to another detention centre where he has nothing, ‘All of my property, my clothes and my documents are lost.’ He also alleges that during an earlier attempted deportation he was assaulted by guards and has suffered injuries to his arms and legs. ‘I am not going back to my country. I am here to save my life. I’m not a criminal. I’m not getting on a plane unless they put me in a body bag. That is the only way I will go back.’ A lawyer from a leading human rights firm has told IRR News that she is currently handling ten cases of alleged brutality by guards against asylum seekers in detention – three of which involve Harmondsworth. She is dealing with a further two cases involving alleged assaults at airports and two cases of unlawful handcuffing during hospital visits.
It is not just lawyers who are worried about conditions. The Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report into Harmondsworth, published in September 2003, found that ‘the centre as a whole was not well-equipped to ensure detainees’ protection. Staffing levels were low, there was no means of locking down the centre in the event of concerted indiscipline, and no health and safety assessments of the risks to detainees had been carried out … Harmondsworth … did not meet three of our four tests for a healthy custodial environment.’ Furthermore, the report found that that ‘there were increasing levels of disorder, damage and escape attempts, with an average of seven assaults a week. In spite of an average of one self-harm incident a week, suicide, self-harm and anti-bullying procedures were not effectively managed. Nor was there sufficient mental health support for detainees held in the in-patient ward.’
A similar report in September 2003 into Dungavel, which is one of three immigration removal centres to detain children, declared that ‘the detention of children should be an exceptional measure and should not exceed a very short period – no more than a matter of days.’ In December 2003, three asylum seekers climbed onto the roof at Dungavel in protest at their detention. There are plans now to increase the number of asylum seekers Dungavel can house from 150 to nearly 200. The new unit is to house single men.
Poor track records
Procedures at Harmondsworth detention centre have been questioned before. In April 2003, an internal Home Office Inquiry into the death of Robertus Grabys in January 2000 found that Burns International, the company running the centre at the time, did not have a formal policy to prevent suicides and that there was insufficient care of Robertus. His body was not found for over one hour as guards did not check the room. But he was known to suffer from a depressive illness. As in many self-harm attempts in immigration detention, Robertus, a Lithuanian, was due to be deported on the day that he took his own life. Burns International lost its contract to run the centre soon after the inquiry by the Home Office.
The Home Office was forced to publish its report only after Liberty, on behalf of the Grabys family, threatened to bring a judicial review of the Home Office’s refusal to release it. The Grabys family had to wait eighteen months to see a copy of the report and it took another six months to persuade the Home Office to authorise its publication.
Harmondsworth is now run by UK Detention Services, which is owned by Sodhexo – a multinational company, based in France, which runs prisons world-wide and previously managed the asylum voucher scheme until protests forced it to be scrapped. UK Detention Services run HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Ashford, Kent and HMP/YOI Forest Bank in Manchester and is part of a proposed prison project in Peterborough to open in Spring 2005.
Dungavel removal centre is run by Premier Detention Services which also operates Colnbrook immigration detention centre near Heathrow (due to open shortly housing up to 330 men), Ashfield, Doncaster, Dovegate and Lowdham Grange prisons. Its operation of these prisons has been criticised. For example in May 2002, the governor of Ashfield prison near Bristol was replaced after concerns about conditions at the prison. And, after an inspection report was published in February 2003, the prison was branded one of the worst in the UK causing the Youth Justice Board to pull out of the prison because of its conditions.
Government prioritises reducing suicides
According to IRR research (Failing the vulnerable: the death of ten asylum seekers and other foreign nationals in UK detention), over the last four years, at least eight asylum seekers and foreign national have taken their own lives in prisons and detention centres.
Reducing self-inflicted deaths and self-harm attempts in prisons have been ministerial and Prison Service priorities and a three-year programme was begun in April 2001 to develop policies and practices. In March 2004, Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said the ‘main principles of the strategy apply across all types of prison and to all prisoners regardless of nationality’. ‘All immigration removal centres’, he said, ‘are required to comply with an Operating Standards on suicide and self-harm prevention, and a range of measures is in place to address the issue. These measures include: suicide awareness and emergency first aid training for staff… and systems for paying particular attention to detainees on their first night in detention or immediately prior to removal.’ But recent events appear to show how much more needs to actually protect these particularly vulnerable people in immigration detention.
But already at another UKDS-run establishment, HMP/YOI Forest Bank in Manchester, concerns are obvious over current practices. A prison officer was interviewed by police after the death of remand prisoner, Paul Dobbin, who was found hanged in his cell in March 2003. The officer allegedly failed to check on Paul who was a suicide risk and was supposed, therefore, to be checked on every thirty minutes.
The death at Harmondsworth on 19 July is being investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the death at Dungavel on 23 July is part of a fatal accident inquiry by a sheriff at the local Sheriff Court in Scotland.
Could history repeat itself?
The disturbance at Harmondsworth bears a striking similarity to one at Yarl’s Wood removal centre in Bedford in February 2002. There, over half of the centre was destroyed after detainees rioted following the restraint of a 52-year-old Nigerian female detainee.
The decision to fit sprinklers at Harmondsworth, which could house up to 550 detainees, was taken in the immediate aftermath of the fire at Yarl’s Wood. Till then there were no sprinklers fitted in any immigration centre because of the ‘operational and practical issues associated with managing sprinkler systems in such an environment’ – the cost.
After the fire at Yarl’s Wood, twelve men were charged with various offences including arson and violent disorder – leading to just four convictions. In August 2003, after a four-month trial, two men were convicted of violent disorder, four men had the charges against them dismissed, three men were found not guilty by the jury and two men pleaded guilty to affray and violent disorder charges.
Whether the men received a fair trial is questionable: the Home Office deported many of the witnesses to the events who might have exonerated those accused; key prosecution witnesses were trained in the ‘art’ of giving evidence in a courtroom; and a juror alleged that two other members of the jury had made prejudiced comments against asylum seekers. (See Yarl’s Wood trial – a miscarriage of justice?) The two men convicted in connection with the fire have since been given leave to appeal against their convictions and four-year sentences.
Bearing this history in mind, campaigners are anxious that witnesses to the events at Harmondsworth last month are not deported, as now at least seventeen men face charges in connection with the disturbance there. Emma Ginn, of the Stop Arbitrary Detentions in Yarl’s Wood campaign, told IRR news, ‘we were not surprised by the deaths and disturbance, and neither should the Home Office be. Locking people up without good reason, with little access to legal help, a high level of assault allegations, the fear of being sent back to a place where their life may be in danger, makes for a lethal cocktail. We want the Home Office to tell us why “failed” asylum seekers choose suicide rather than be deported? Furthermore we are concerned that the Harmondsworth defendants may not receive a fair trial. In the Yarl’s Wood trial we heard how detention centre staff subverted the investigation in a series of ‘wholly improper’ actions’. One detainee charged over the Yarl’s Wood disturbance was left standing in the dock with 24 of his 26 witnesses having been deported . There can be no fair trial in such circumstances. Will this scenario be repeated?’