The psychological toll of ATCSA detention

The psychological toll of ATCSA detention


Written by: Harmit Athwal

On 13 October 2004, a panel of psychologists and a psychiatrist made public a report showing that the damage to men held indefinitely without trial under the Anti Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) was both grave and predictable.

The experts reported that there had been a ‘progressive deterioration in the mental health of all those detainees and their families’ and that the indefinite nature of the detention was a ‘major factor in their deterioration’. The report was based on assessments of eight of the twelve men held under the ATCSA. Compiled by eleven psychiatrists and one psychologist, it drew on forty-eight documents and reports compiled over the last two and a half years, including those by prison staff as well as by independent doctors employed by the men’s legal team. It also recounted the way that the detention of immigration detainees causes ‘hopelessness and helplessness’ – leading to depression, anxiety, attempts to self-harm, serious suicide attempts and psychotic symptoms. Other studies have found that there is a strong association between the severity of such symptoms and the length of detention.

The effects of indefinite detention

Little wonder then that the report on the eight men, some of whom have been held for three years, found that:

  • All suffer from significant levels of depression and anxiety. These symptoms are of clinical severity and have shown a deterioration over time.
  • Some of the men are also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the result of events either prior to their coming to the UK or surrounding their arrests.
  • The men dwell on thoughts of suicide and a number have self-harmed. They have cut themselves and made attempts to hang themselves.
  • All feel hopeless and helpless.
  • Some have complex needs as a result of other medical problems – these are not being adequately met by prison healthcare services.
  • There is a failure by prison authorities to perceive the men’s condition as a serious problem – rather they judge it as ‘manipulative behaviour’.
  • Some of the men have developed psychotic symptoms.
  • Experts agree that indefinite detention is directly linked to a deterioration in mental health.
  • It is judged unlikely under the men’s current terms of detention, that Prison Healthcare teams will be able to combat the deterioration in their mental health.
Further findings

The men have never been interviewed or questioned; many were simply arrested and taken straight to Belmarsh. Some are traumatised by the circumstances surrounding their arrest. Others were already traumatised by events that took place in their own countries – including torture.

Four of the men have been assessed with a view to transferring them to Broadmoor maximum-security hospital because of the state of their mental health. But so far only one man, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian refugee previously tortured in Israel, has been moved there.

Effect on family life

The report also examined the effects of detention without trial on three of the wives of men held under the ATCSA. All were found to be suffering from clinical depression, one was suffering from PTSD as a result of seeing her husband arrested. Their symptoms were found to be directly related to their husbands’ imprisonment, with their own isolation compounding their mental health problems.

The single men held under the ATCSA receive no visitors and are completely isolated. The married men are highly anxious about their wives and children. One doctor also reported that some of the men in the early part of their detention, had access to their families restricted. They were not even allowed to speak to them in Arabic.


The report concludes:’There is agreement that it is the indefinite nature of the detention which is particularly damaging … All of the detainees are experiencing Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety and some are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.’

Related links

Full text of the The psychiatric problems of detainees under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security act

Campaign Against Criminalising Communities

Stop Political Terror

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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