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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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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