Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC) at Heathrow, holding large numbers of men with mental health problems in prison-like conditions, continued to show “considerable failings” in safety and respect for detainees, according to prison inspectors.
Publishing a report on an inspection in September 2017, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said a 2015 inspection of Europe’s largest immigration detention centre had highlighted concerns over safety, respect and provision of activities. In 2017, Harmondsworth had made some improvements since then, “but not of the scale or speed that were required. In some areas, there had been a deterioration. The centre’s task in caring for detainees was not made any easier by the profile of those who were held. There was a very high level of mental health need and nearly a third of the population was considered by the Home Office to be vulnerable under its at risk in detention policy. The continuing lack of a time limit on detention meant that some men had been held for excessively long periods: 23 men had been detained for over a year and one man had been held for over 4.5 years, which was unacceptable.”
- Worryingly, in nearly all of a sample of cases, the Home Office accepted evidence that detainees had been tortured, but maintained detention regardless. “Insufficient attention was given to post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems.”
- While violence was not high, a high number of detainees felt unsafe. Detainees told inspectors this was because of the uncertainty associated with their cases, but also because a large number of their fellow detainees seemed mentally unwell, frustrated or angry.
- Drug use was an increasing problem.
Mr Clarke said the governance of the use of force was generally good “and we noted that managers had identified an illegitimate use of force by a member of staff on CCTV cameras and dismissed the person concerned.” HMIP used an “enhanced” inspection approach, interviewing hundreds of staff and detainees to give them an opportunity to tell inspectors, in confidence, about any concerns relating to the safe and decent treatment of detainees. Neither detainees nor staff told inspectors “of a pernicious or violent subculture,” Mr Clarke added, though only 58% of detainees said that most staff treated them with respect, well below the average figure for IRCs. Both staff and detainees felt that there were not enough officers to effectively support detainees. Around a third of staff felt they did not have sufficient training to do their jobs well and few had an adequate understanding of whistle-blowing procedures.
Inspectors were also worried about the security regime. Mr Clarke said: “Some aspects of security would have been disproportionate in a prison and were not acceptable in an IRC…Harmondsworth is the centre where, in 2013, we identified the disgraceful treatment of an ill and elderly man who was kept in handcuffs as he died in hospital. A more proportionate approach to handcuffing was subsequently put in place by the Home Office and followed by the centre contractor. It is with concern, therefore, that at this inspection we found detainees once again being routinely handcuffed when attending outside appointments without evidence of risk.”
Physical conditions had improved since 2015 but many areas were dirty and bedrooms, showers and toilets were poorly ventilated. Inspectors in 2015 raised serious concerns about bedbugs but they remained endemic in 2017. There were infestations of mice in some areas. Inspectors were also concerned that only 29% of detainees said they could fill their time while in the centre and many described “a sense of purposelessness and boredom.”
There were, however, some positive findings. The on-site immigration team made considerable efforts to engage with detainees, faith provision was good and complaints were managed well. The welfare services were impressive and there was positive engagement with third sector groups, including the charity Hibiscus Initiatives which provided support to many detainees before release or removal.
Overall, though, Mr Clarke said:
“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.”
Notes to editors
The report is available, from 13 March 2018, at https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/