Should immigration removal centres be run by private firms?

A report shows, yet again, inhumane conditions and unsafe practices (for staff and detainees alike)

A new prisons inspectorate report has condemned Brook House, an immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport, in suburban London, that has been open just a year.

Many of the 400 male detainees held at Brook House are ex-prisoners facing deportation. Some have committed serious crimes. The centre, built to the same standard as a category B prison, is designed to hold detainees for no more than 72 hours, yet the average time spent there is three months.

The report describes high use of force against detainees and the use of separation as punishment, amid staff being bullied by difficult-to-manage detainees. It makes shocking, but sadly unsurprising, reading.

The UK's 11 immigration centres are stains on the conscience of New Labour. Of these 11, eight are run by private security firms (a full list is available here), many of which have dubious records on running prisons in the US and across the world. These profit-making companies then subcontract services such as transporting detainees between centres.

This leads to patchy quality. Occasionally, services are delivered effectively and humanely. All too often, they are not.

A damning report on Campsfield House, a centre near Kidlington, Oxfordshire, run by GEO, found that the company handling transfers was "routinely handcuffing detainees rather than doing so on the basis of risk assessment". It describes "frequent unannounced and unexplained transfers, often at night, which distanced [detainees] from family and solicitors". This scenario is frequently repeated with slight variations in other reports.

It went on to say: "Hygiene in the dining room and kitchen was poor. Detainees had little faith in the cleanliness of the cutlery and staff eating in the same room were openly issued with different cutlery, suggesting that detainee suspicions were well founded. This was disrespectful and divisive."

The latest report on Campsfield says that conditions are now vastly improved. However, this is not the case everywhere. Another secure detention centre, Colnbrook, near Heathrow Airport, run by Serco, found that issues such as poor ventilation and use of force had not improved since the last visit.

It also noted "deficiencies . . . in the management of suicide and self-harm, with some inappropriate separation of vulnerable detainees and examples of excessive use of demeaning anti-ligature clothing".

The list goes on. There is no doubt that these are exceptionally challenging centres to run, with criminals awaiting deportation frequently held in and among victims of torture or persecution whose claims have either been refused or are pending investigation. All too often, little distinction is drawn between these two groups. Another issue frequently flagged up in the prison inspectorate's reports is that, given the quick turnover of staff, many are not appropriately trained.

The Detention Centre Rules 2001 state that: "The purpose of detention centres shall be to provide for the secure but humane accommodation of detained persons in a relaxed regime with as much freedom of movement and association as possible, consistent with maintaining a safe and secure environment, and to encourage and assist detained persons to make the most productive use of their time, whilst respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression."

This goal is clearly not being upheld. At the very least, the role of private companies in running immigration removal centres needs to bere-examined, and closely, to make them more accountable and to ensure that they adhere to a standard that respects the basics of human dignity.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear