Harmondsworth detention centre in LondonHolding detainees for up to five years, forcing them to endure unjustified long spells in segregation or to live in dirty and rundown accommodation are among the “substantial concerns” spotted in an unannounced inspection at Europe’s largest immigration detention facility.

In his first report since being appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke said the concerns about Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), near Heathrow, cover “most” of the tests of a healthy custodial establishment and standards had deteriorated when it was still being run under a previous contract by GEO Group.

Mr Clarke said it was “unacceptable that conditions were allowed to decline so much towards the end of the last contract”.

The centre, which holds up to 661 male detainees, has been run for the Home Office by the Mitie Group since September 2014. Heathrow IRC is made up of both Harmondsworth and the adjacent Colnbrook IRC.

GEO Group were in charge during the last inspection in August 2013 where progress was undermined by uncertainty about the future of the contract leading to a negative impact on the treatment of and conditions for detainees, an Inspectorate of Prisons report states.

The unannounced September 2015 inspection showed that many concerns dating back to 2013 had not been rectified and in some respects, matters have deteriorated, according to the inspectors.

The appalling state of some of the residential units was a sign of the lack of investment in the last stages of the previous contract. Some of the newer accommodation was dirty and rundown, while many toilets and showers in the older units were seriously insanitary and many rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated, the report said. Widescale refurbishment is under way.

They were also concerned because 18 detainees had been held for over a year and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.

Some detainees were segregated for too long and inspectors were not convinced this was always justified.

Nearly half of the men held said they had felt depressed or suicidal on arrival but despite an improved reception environment, early days risk assessment processes were not good enough

The quality of Rule 35 reports, which gives information on detainees whose health is likely to be affected by detention or who may be suicidal or a victim of torture, was described as variable. Nearly a fifth of these reports had identified illnesses, suicidal intentions and/or experiences of torture that helped the Home Office to conclude that detention could not be justified, the inspectors found.

There was little positive engagement between staff and detainees and, despite some improvements, detainees still had problems in getting work, training and education.

Mr Clarke said “the state of drift that we described in our last report has been arrested and the direction of travel is now positive” but stressed that the ending of a contract should not also mean a drop in standards.

He said: “The Home Office and its contractors have a responsibility to ensure this does not happen again.

“Following the inspection, we were informed by the Home Office that lessons had been learned and that a new set of principles were established to prevent a recurrence of this situation. We will assess the success of these measurements in due course.”

The inspectors said the use of force was not high, the chaplaincy provided valued support and that the centre had substantially improved preparation for release and removal of detainees. The standard of the visiting system was applauded and many detainees received support from the local visitors group, Detention Action.

A GEO Group spokesman said: “We are not commenting on the report on Harmondsworth as GEO has not been involved in operating the centre since 2014. ”

Danny Spencer, an IRC managing director, said: “We are encouraged that the efforts of our people and partners have been recognised.

“The inspection also identified things we need to do better. We were aware of most of them and have been working on an improvement programme since we commenced the service. This has continued in the six months since the inspection, addressing the recommendations and the operational and cultural challenges that we faced as incoming operator.”

Eiri Ohtani of campaign group the Detention Forum said there was growing demand for a time limit to be placed on the period of immigration detention to bring the UK in line with other countries.

She said: “The responsibility for this deplorable neglect of the detention estate and those who are held inside lies squarely with the Government who has made little progress with detention reform.”

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