How did a detainee die in Morton Hall immigration centre?

Barbed wire: Events behind the fence at Morton Hall are hard to piece together
Barbed wire: Events behind the fence at Morton Hall are hard to piece together
Ian Dunt By

Very little is known about the last moments of Rubel Ahmed. We know he was from Bangladesh and that he was 26-years-old. Those who speak of him mention that he was good-hearted and shy. According to most reports, he had only been in Morton Hall immigration detention centre a few days.

He died at some point between Friday night and Saturday morning. We do not know how and we do not know why. We know that after news of his death spread around the detainees, staff at Morton Hall retreated behind a secure fence. There was then a protest - or a riot, depending on how you look at it. That evening a Tornado unit, designed to quell prison riots, rushed the centre and returned everyone to their rooms.

That is what we know. Everything else is disputed.

There are two mutually incompatible accounts of what caused the death. The authorities say it was a suicide. Fellow detainees say he had been complaining of chest pains and repeatedly called for help, which he did not receive.


"We are being told it was suicide and he didn't press his bell once," one prison guard tells me, on condition of anonymity. "The death was used as an excuse for unrest."

According to this account, Ahmed was alive and well at 21:00, when the first of the night's cell checks are conducted by the guards. There is another check at 23:00 and one again at 05:00. At the 23:00 check, the guards couldn't see him. They then called for help and found him dead.

"No-one knows who he was," the guard says. "He'd never come to our attention for any reason. He wasn't being watched closely because he wasn't a suicide risk. They say his flight was quite imminent. Everyone's assuming he didn't want to get back on the plane to leave."

The detainees were also told it was a suicide. Some of them mention that they were told it was a result of hanging.

"They held a meeting and said he committed suicide with a cable from the TV and hanged himself in the shower," a group of them whisper to me down the phone from one of the cells.

"There's no space for him to tie a rope or cable. The cable from the TV isn't that strong that it could hold the weight of a person. No-one believes it. Everyone knows. We are here, we know how the showers are. There's no space on the shower to tie the cable."

Detainees in neighbouring cells say Ahmed was complaining of a feeling of suffocation and that there was a pain in his chest. They say he repeatedly tried to get the guards' attention, but none came.

"The guys in the nearby rooms said he'd been kicking the door, he'd been pressing the alarm bell," they say.

"Usually they come in a minute. But that day, nobody came. The staff said he didn't ring any bell. The guys in the other room said he was ringing the bell, he was kicking the door, he was screaming, but none of the staff came."

Even the guards do not necessarily believe the authorities' version of events.

"They are fucking liars," the guard tells me, of his own bosses. "They don't tell the truth, not by a long way. I've been in this job a long time and I know it's a load of bollocks. We're being told no-one is in the frame for this. Whatever the truth is, it's never going to come out. We won't even look at it. How will we ever know if he pressed his bell or not? We'll never know. They're saying he didn't and it's as simple as that."

There's good reason to be sceptical about both accounts. On the one hand, the authorities may want to conceal their behaviour, especially if they failed in their duty of care.

Their response to the death on Saturday was lacking. Not only did they not announce it, but they failed to even get in contact with journalists until hours after the story had broken. Morton Hall directed calls to the Ministry of Justice, who answered an hour later and passed the call on to the Home Office, who did not answer until several hours later. It was a disgraceful approach by the state to the death of someone in its care. They did not even contact Ahmed's family. They were informed by his solicitor, who had been told what happened by a fellow detainee.

But the description of a TV cable and the shower is problematic. If Ahmed died of a heart attack, as many detainees believe, authorities are unlikely to inform them of a method of death which would leave evidence to the contrary. Detention centres are, after all, hotbeds of rumour. That said, the authorities' response was so shambolic, you wouldn't put this past them. There are many contradictory accounts whirling around the staff and detainees of the centre.

It'll be a while before we get a clearer picture. First there need to be investigations by the police and the prison and probation ombudsman. Only then do we get a coroner's inquest.

Either way, news of the death spread at breakfast time the next day. Things very quickly became heated.

"My personal opinion is we shouldn't have opened any doors," the guard says. "We should have spoken to everyone. Whoever was in charge made a bad mistake to stick to that regime. The dining hall was opened for breakfast from 8am. That allowed them to go organise whatever they wanted.

"A death in custody is never nice, it needs to be explained. But it's typical prison service - we don't like to communicate."

According to this account, the staff retreated to safety after being secretly told by a detainee that they were in danger.

"A detainee tipped us off," he said. "He went back and said to the guards: 'You need to withdraw, because you're going to be in danger. We rang round very quickly and said we need to leave. Threats were being made. It was getting very uncomfortable indeed."

The detainees say they woke that morning and by the time they went for breakfast a protest was already happening.

"The guys were doing a protest outside the main gate," they say. "We came outside and by about half nine all the staff were off the facilities. There was no-one in the main building. They left the building straight away. They didn't give answers to anyone.

"All day, the guys did the protest. We weren't asking guards for anything. We were just standing outside."

A shop window was broken, so detainees could grab snacks after not being fed all day. There was damage to the medical centre and guards say there was damage to the residential units.

The guards point out that Morton Hall is unlike many other detention centres, because it holds a disproportionate number of former criminals, who are often at the centre of disorder. They are surrounded by law-abiding men who have been made desperate by the immigration system.

"These people have been in the UK 30 years - some were born here," the guard says.

"They've Yorkshire accents, cockney accents. They're being sent back to countries where they've got no ties whatsoever. They will riot. And that's what they've done."

There have been numerous complaints about how many former prisoners end up in Morton Hall. Guards find it hard to deal with the influx. Immigration detainees, who have committed no crime, are flung in among them in open conditions.

"It's very tribal," the guard says. "The Vietnamese hang together, the Afghans, the Nigerians. If one Nigerian has a problem with an Afghan, then it's the Nigerians versus the Afghans. We don't get a lot of trouble, but when we do, we get carnage. The incidents have gone up since the Home Office decided to send us former foreign national prisoners. We're getting far too many."

Once staff got behind the fence, they called in a Tornado unit to retake control of the detention centre. Meanwhile, they filmed proceedings so they could later pick out the ringleaders and ship them out to other institutions. Thirty or so men have already been removed.

Eventually the Tornado unit turned up. The sight of the riot squad scared the detainees.

"It was scary when everyone saw them," they say. "They were in riot gear, with proper boots, helmets, masks - black riot gear. There were dogs in there as well."

As the guard puts it: "One hundred and fourteen of them fully kitted up is enough to scare the shit out of anyone."

The unit got the men back in their cells by late evening, where they stayed without food. Order was returned to Morton Hall. The trouble died down.

But there will be a next time. Morton Hall is an incendiary combination of factors. Men who have been imprisoned for months on end without having committed a crime, faced with return to a country they have never visited, torn away from family and friends, thrown in with over 100 former prisoners, some of them very serious. The question is not why there was trouble on Saturday. It's why there wasn't trouble earlier.

In the meantime, we wait for the inquiries into the death of Rubel Ahmed. However he died – suicide, heart attack or something else - he was a victim of Morton Hall.

Timeline: How Morton Hall fell apart

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