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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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