There is supposed to be a fundamental difference between custodial incarceration and immigration detention. The former is reserved for those who have committed crimes: its purpose is punitive, to protect the public and to rehabilitate offenders.
The latter, however, is meant to be administrative: a stepping stone for those who are to be removed from the United Kingdom. The majority of those held in immigration detention have committed no crime.
However, a report released yesterday on Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) by the Chief Inspector of Prisons finds that the line between the two regimes is becoming increasingly blurred.
According to the report, there has been a significant decline in the safety of detainees, with increased levels of violence and antisocial behaviour. Of the detainees questioned, 38% said that they felt unsafe at the centre. Indeed, the reporting team record a ‘very tense atmosphere’ in most residential units, exacerbated by physical security described as ‘excessive for an immigration removal centre’.
Further examples of mission creep are provided, including the ‘punitive prison-style rewards scheme’, assessed to be ‘wholly inappropriate for a detainee population’. While in most IRCs officers do not carry batons, they have been drawn on five occasions during 125 incidents where force was used against detainees in the last six months.
The excessive physical security appears to have done nothing to deal with the increased levels of violence. The report records ‘38 detainee-on-detainee assaults in the last six months’, apparently ‘far higher’ than is normally recorded in IRCs. There were also ‘11 assaults on staff during the same period’, in addition to significant levels of verbal abuse directed at officers.
As well as cases of physical violence, the report found that ‘there had been a three-fold increase in incidents of self-harm since the previous inspection’. This included ‘four detainees [who] had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of self-harm during the previous year’.
Depressingly, several recommendations on the subject of safety had been made on the occasion of the 2013 report, half of which had not been achieved. ‘Perhaps we should not be surprised that the safety of the centre has declined,’ the inspector wryly observes.
The report offers two broad reasons for the deterioration in safety.
Firstly, the unnecessarily aggressive administration of the centre, which has done nothing to improve the situation, and if anything has made matters worse. And secondly, the frustration of detainees at the situation in which they find themselves, which has been exacerbated by the overbearing security of the facility.
What Would I be?
The word ‘frustrated’ or ‘frustration’ is used 18 times during the course of the report to describe the feelings of detainees at Morton Hall. This is unsurprising. The UK is the only European country without an upper limit on the time an individual can be held under immigration powers, leaving detainees without a ‘clear pathway to release’. And this is clear from some of the statistics referred to in the report where, at the time of writing, ‘31 [individuals] had been held for over a year, including three who had been detained for two years’.
Blame is also laid at the door of the Home Office, with ‘caseworking inefficiencies prolong[ing] detention in some cases’. The report raises the case of a man whose application for asylum took seven months to be resolved whilst he remained in detention, awaiting resolution of his claim.
The findings almost carry with them a tone of inevitability: as if anything else could have been expected when you imprison a group of desperate people and treat them like serious criminals. Indeed, the inspector goes out of his way to praise the staff at Morton Hall. They are, by all accounts, doing a decent job while stuck between two 800lb gorillas: Home Office detention policy on the one side, and its consequences on the other.
Those familiar with UK immigration enforcement will be utterly unsurprised by the content of this report. Administrative detention is too often used as a form of legal warehousing by the Secretary of State, sacrificing long-held principles of freedom of the individual at the altar of public approval, driven by a fear of appearing ‘soft’ on migrants.
The risks of this approach are clear from the findings of inspectorate.