The independent prison inspector has raised the alarm over the continued detention of migrants who the Home Office accepts have been tortured. A scathing inspection report also found “considerable failings” in safety and respect for detainees at the “prison-like” Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow.
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, published his report on a surprise October inspection of the facility today. It concludes that
the centre had failed to progress significantly since our last visit in 2015. For the third consecutive inspection, we found considerable failings in the areas of safety and respect. Detainees, many identified as vulnerable, were not being adequately safeguarded. Some were held for unacceptably long periods. Mental health needs were often not met. Detainees were subject to some disproportionate security restrictions and living conditions were below decent standards. It is time for the Home Office and contractors to think again about how to ensure that more substantial progress is made by the time that we return.
Mr Clarke was particular unhappy at the dismissive treatment of Rule 35 medical reports, which are the main safeguard against detaining victims of torture or other people unsuitable for detention. In nine of the 10 cases his inspectors looked at, the Home Office
accepted the reports as evidence of torture. However, only one of these reports led to release. In the previous six months, only 9% of the 351 rule 35 reports submitted had led to release, fewer than at other recent IRC inspections.
His report calls for detainees to be released if declared unfit for detention by a doctor unless there are exceptional circumstances. It is one of no less than 50 recommendations for change, headed by a renewed plea for a time limit on detention.
There had been 58 recommendations made in the aftermath of a 2015 inspection. Of those, Mr Clarke said that 37 had not been even partly addressed by the time his inspectors returned last year.
To give a particularly egregious example: inspectors had overseen a “more proportionate approach to handcuffing” after the death of Alois Dvorzac, an 84-year-old man who died still handcuffed after being taken ill at Harmondsworth in 2013. But today’s report says that things have gone backwards, with detainees “once again being routinely handcuffed when attending outside appointments without evidence of risk”. In fact, when inspectors looked at a sample of records, they found that every single detainee taken to hospital had been handcuffed.
The report also flagged up major concerns with:
- dirty and unhygienic facilities
- how vulnerable detainees are dealt with on arrival
- the lack of activities and education
- the fact that almost half of detainees feel unsafe
Examples, taken directly from the report, include:
Twenty-three men had been held for more than a year, all but one ex-prisoners, with three held for more than two years. The longest detention had been for more than four and a half years.
The vast majority of detainees said that drugs were easy to obtain, especially ‘Spice’, and many said that staff did not do enough to address the problem. Staff interviewees similarly felt that drugs were widely available.
Detainees not scheduled for definite removal [were] taken to the airport in case anyone else’s removal was cancelled at the last minute. Previously, such detainees had been routinely informed that they were reserves. At this inspection, we were told that reserves were still taken to the airport, but were not informed that they were reserves, except where there was a particular risk of harm if they were returned to an IRC from the airport.
A floor in one of the main corridors had water on it throughout most of the inspection. A dilapidated pool table had been left for months in Fir unit, and was filled with rubbish. There was a strong smell of urine from communal toilets in this unit, which confronted anyone coming through the main entrance.
Bed bugs were endemic.
The report contains a number of harrowing individual cases. Again, quoting different extracts:
We asked for a detainee on an ACDT [plan to prevent suicide or self-harm] to be assessed as he appeared very distressed. The ACDT recorded no further action until over an hour later, when he was found making a noose. He was only then placed on constant watch.
Another case involved a detainee who, according to his ACDT, had made ‘deep lacerations’ to his arm at night requiring emergency hospital treatment. He remained locked in his cell for over an hour without assistance, and emergency cell bell records indicated that he had made 22 calls before staff came to see him and called an ambulance.
A blind detainee on an ACDT had been detained for over a year… and a wheelchair user who had tried to set himself on fire had been held for 15 months.
A Home Office enforcement team had liaised appropriately with social services before a man was detained in June 2017. The social worker wrote to the Home Office raising significant concerns that the man’s child could be exposed to domestic abuse and violence if he were released. The detainee was released during our inspection but the Home Office did not notify social services until we raised the case.
A detainee who used a wheelchair was not transferred to his bail hearing as the escorts failed to provide suitable transport, which was unacceptable. The hearing went ahead and his application was refused.
A wheelchair user was ‘forgotten’ in an IT room and only later returned to his room when a member of staff remembered that he had not been collected.
A judge ordered the release of a detainee subject to suitable accommodation being found, yet he was not released for another two months.
The standard Home Office response to such reports is to thank the inspector very much for his thoughts and to reassure him that work is already underway on making improvements. It would take a particularly credulous reader, looking from scandals from Morton Hall to Brook House to Yarl’s Wood, to believe that conditions in immigration detention are improving at all. The facts suggest quite the opposite.