The horror in detention centres won't be fixed by a narrow review

Specialist prison officers prepare to enter the Harmondsworth detention centre in 2006 following a large-scale disturbance
Specialist prison officers prepare to enter the Harmondsworth detention centre in 2006 following a large-scale disturbance
Ian Dunt By

It's best to take the good news without grumbling.

Anyone with a passing interest in Britain's detention centres will be horrified by the stories they hear. Behind those barbed wire walls, harmless old men die in handcuffs, raped women are thrown in cells by male guards who regularly enter unannounced. People with mental health problems are locked up for years on end, with no-one telling them when they might be released. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare totally at odds with the fundamental principles of a civilised society.

So we should welcome the Home Office's announcement of a review into how vulnerable people are treated in Britain's detention centres.

The news was given to the Guardian, which will add to the sense Theresa May is courting the left, as she has over policing and racial minorities, in her increasingly public leadership manoeuvres. That's how politics works. You take what you get and don't fixate too much on why it was given.


But let's be clear: this review is too narrow to come up with proper answers to the brutality of Britain's detention centres. The nightmare that is detention is a product of a system which is under intense pressure to 'do something' about immigration, but is legally unable to cut EU numbers and economically unwilling to cut too far into non-EU numbers.

Like a balloon being squeezed at one end, the pressure is forced to swell out at the other. The main victims have been students and asylum seekers. While it is impotent in other areas, the Home Office has cracked down on these two groups with undue force.

As the prisons inspector found last year, children are left traumatised when the front door of their family home is knocked down by immigration officers wearing helmets and body armour in the early morning. Students are left startled and afraid when they are woken by half a dozen immigration vans. Families – and yes, children are still detained, even if the numbers have been successfully reduced – and students alike are then sent to detention centres, without legal representation nor any idea how long they will be detained.

Protestors hold a vigil for Isa Muazu, a detainee who went on hunger strike at his treatment but was deported at the end of 2013. Photo by  Guy Smallman.

This is enough to drive a man of sound mind mad. In the case of victims of rape and torture, it often sends them over the edge.

As one detention centre guard, speaking anonymously, told me:

"I wish I'd never gone there. It breaks your heart.  They don't have compassion. They don't believe a word a detainee says. No-one could possibly be saying the truth, they think."

One nurse who works in detention centres, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told me she sees several women being detained who'd been raped in the country they'd escaped from. She said of one woman:

"She'd been raped as part of her torture and she now had a guard coming in every night to check her room. She massively deteriorated. She cried the entire time I was there. She was just terrified, looking around constantly. She didn't trust anyone. She threatened to kill herself."

A recent report by Women for Refugee Women painted a bleak picture of damaged women being driven to suicide and self-harm by detention. One woman who had fled persecution and rape in Cameroon for being a lesbian described her welcome in the UK:

"There were three big men and one woman to take me away. They took me to a prison in Stoke-on-Trent and told me that if I resisted arrest they would put me in handcuffs.

When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me and I thought that they could do what they liked with me."

Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules bars the Home Office from detaining anyone who has been tortured. Detention centre doctors are supposed to alert the Home Office of any detainee who they think might be a victim of torture. This is meant to trigger a review of the decision to detain.

Handcufs are sometimes used against vulnerable detainees, contrary to Home Office rules

It doesn't work. Just nine per cent of Rule 35 reports lead to release.

Last week a report by the chief inspector of prisons found doctors' reports frequently contained no clinical judgements about detainees' claims of torture. It read:

"Many merely repeated the detainee's account and failed to provide a medical opinion, for example, on the consistencies between scarring and alleged methods of torture… They were of little use to caseworkers as a result and the process as a whole failed adequately to safeguard the most vulnerable detainees, including those who had been tortured."

When those reports did conclude torture had taken place, Home Office case workers were so ignorant of the rules against detaining victims that they still moved to keep the individual in the centre.

Rape is the same. Women from conservative cultures, for instance, are highly unlikely to mention the rape during a first interview, especially because they are often conducted with a man and while the asylum seekers has her children with her. But if it is not mentioned at the first interview, it is frequently discounted if it is mentioned later. The system is designed to reject rape victims who behave in exactly the way we expect many rape victims to behave.

The medical treatment of detainees is often little better. The nurse said:

"I saw a man with HIV. They weren't giving him medication. He was coughing up blood. In the NHS, anyone in that condition would be immediately isolated. My recommendation was that he needed his own room at least and to be investigated for TB. They said that the detainees 'always make that up'. They said they wouldn't register it unless they saw him coughing up blood themselves."

Last year, the chief inspector of prisons described two cases of elderly, vulnerable and incapacitated detainees who were handcuffed for no reason in Harmondsworth detention centres. One was so ill he died shortly after the handcuffs were removed, the other – an 84-year-old – died while still restrained.

It might seem as if a hardening up of the rules and some guidance to Home Office staff could fix these issues, but the problem goes deeper. It is part of the instinctive culture of distrust at the Home Office. And unless that culture – with its disinterest and legal hindrances – is addressed, no true solution can be found.

Some believe May's announcement of the review is an attempt to shore up support on the left ahead of a leadership bid

Take the case of a Sudanese national, who arrived in Britain and claimed asylum in 2003. He was rejected, appealed and was rejected again. So he ran. Years later he popped up on the grid when he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act at Hull Royal Infirmary hospital. When he was consequently detained, they found 260 scars. He had been burnt. He had been cut. He had been branded.

Even at this point, the Home Office was obstinate in the extreme. It was sent the report of the scars and did not respond. The court of appeal issued a court order. Still it did not respond. In June last year, after the man had been in detention for years without ever knowing when it would end, the Home Office reply. They would not investigate whether he'd been tortured because of "lack of resources".

It was an admittance, as clear as day: the Home Office is not investigating whether torture victims are finding their way into detention. It doesn't care. If it cared, a torture victim with mental health issues would not be put in indefinite detention for a period of years without any communication from the people imprisoning him.

When the high court found the government's fast-track detention programme was illegal last year, Mr Justice Ouseley highlighted the failure of legal accountability the system entailed.

Detainees go weeks without seeing a lawyer, then they show up on the day they have to give evidence to Home Office officials, denying them the opportunity to put together a robust case. The detainee is typically suffering from trauma and often can't speak English. The odds are very much against them.

The fundamental problem is they have no-one fighting their corner. They are forgotten. A review of medical and physical health will fail those it intends to help unless it branches out to include the culture of disbelief and the lack of access to legal prepresentation.

The Home Office is not fit for purpose when it comes to asylum. It is allowing Britain to fail in the most basic possible assessment of what constitutes a civilised nation. A much broader root and branch review is needed.

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