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News in brief; Britain's detention centres: harassment, exploitation and insecurity exposed
01 April 2003
Britain's immigration detention regime has been subjected to a damning condemnation by prison inspectors this week, revealing that detainees are not given basic information about their cases, are exploited by unscrupulous legal representatives and are routinely strip-searched without reason. In one centre, Campsfield House, 12 per cent of detainees said that they had experienced sexual harassment.
The first ever independent report by the HM Prison Inspectorate on so-called 'removal centres' provides a detailed account of conditions faced by asylum seekers at five establishments:
Tinsley House, at Gatwick Airport, run by Wackenhut UK Ltd, with 97 detainees at the time of inspection.
Haslar, at Gosport, Hampshire, run by the Prison Service, with 141 detainees at time of inspection.
Oakington, near Cambridge, run by Group 4, with 253 detainees at the time of inspection.
Campsfield House, Oxfordfordshire, run by Group 4, with 168 detainees at the time of inspection.
Lindholme near Doncaster, run by the Prison Service, holding 98 detainees at the time of inspection.
The report, drawing on interviews with detainees conducted about a year ago, paints a depressing picture of life behind the barbed wire fences of the detention centres. Two-thirds of detainees told inspectors that they did not feel safe in detention, with insecurity growing as they spent more time inside. This insecurity was heightened by the fact that they were unable to obtain reliable information from the immigration authorities about the reasons for their detention or the progress of their case. For asylum seekers who may well have fled their home countries in the first place because of the fear of arbitrary detention, this denial of information was, for many, the greatest insecurity of all.
To make matters worse, the report says, detainees are targeted by unscrupulous legal advisors who are 'able to prey on their vulnerability' and are allowed to extract large sums of money for little or no work. In Oakington, the situation was rather different because the centre is designed to provide legal support on site. However, the inspectors were concerned that the speed with which cases are pushed through Oakington's 'fast-track' system did not allow for cases to be processed with full consideration of all their complexity and, because legal advisors are embedded in the detention regime, their independence may be questioned.
At Haslar and Lindholme - the two centres run by the Prison Service rather than private firms - the report reveals that staff routinely imposed random strip-searches after visits, rather than on the basis of reasonable suspicion. And detainees are also strip-searched on admission to the detention centres as a matter of routine, without any reason being given. According to the inspectors, staff at both these former prisons treat detainees as offenders, rather than recognising that they have not been convicted of any crime. At Lindholme, the prison atmosphere was compounded by detainees being made to wear prison clothes and by detainees' own money being withheld from them and channelled into prison-like 'incentive schemes'.
Lindholme, in particular, requires 'fundamental and far-reaching changes', say the inspectors, before it will be suitable for holding immigration detainees. The report describes poor food, poor heating and poor healthcare. Intimidation and hostility were present, with some individuals being made to hand over property. Detainees there do not feel safe 'from one another or from fire'.
At Haslar, the facilities are also described as being in a state of disrepair with concern over fire risks and inadequate heating. Rooms were not separated by doors, leaving detainees feeling unsafe. There was inadequate staff supervision in the dormitories and staff made little effort to check on the wellbeing of detainees.
Legal rights denied
In all the detention centres except for Oakington, a significa