The whistleblower who exposed abuse at a privately-run immigration detention centre in a BBC Panorama investigation has told an inquiry about how he witnessed co-workers regularly taunting detainees and, on one occasion, dancing outside the cell of a prisoner on suicide watch ‘to scare him or to freak him out’.
The Brook House Inquiry is investigating the treatment of immigration detainees and, in particular, whether it breached the prohibition against torture, inhuman or degrading treatment under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This week lawyers acting on behalf of detainees said that the Home Office shared responsibility for abuse at the centre alongside the private company that ran the centre.
Calum Tulley was an employee of G4S between 2015 to 2017 and worked at the 448-bed immigration removal centre which is situated next to Gatwick airport in West Sssex. This week he gave evidence of the ‘toxic culture’ of the centre and the ‘us and them’ mentality amongst staff. ‘There was a language around detainees and the way in which they were restrained which was sinister,’ he said. ‘So it was more than banter.’
According to the Guardian, G4S made a gross profit of £14.3 million from running Brook House between 2012 and 2018 and the soending watchdog the National Audit Office had been investigating claims that G4S had been inaccurately reporting its activities to generate profits of up to 20% of revenues.
After Tulley witnessed the regular abuse faced by detainees at the hands of his G4S coworkers, he decided to work with the BBC to secretly film the realities of Brook House from the inside. The footage was released in a Panorama documentary (Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets) which was broadcast in September 2017.
In November 2019, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that there would be a public inquiry to investigate the claims of mistreatment faced by detainees between April and August 2017. Patel said that she wants to ‘establish the facts of what took place at Brook House and ensure that lessons are learnt to prevent these shocking events happening again.’
According to the inquiry which is chaired by Kate Eves, although Brook House is an immigration removal centre, in fact it is indistinguishable from a prison and was built to the security standard of a category B jail. However, unlike a prison, Brook House detains people indefinitely under immigration powers as a result of their asylum application being rejected, overstaying on a visa or breaching immigration conditions.
Now more than four years after Tulley’s exposé, he told the inquiry how staff would ‘flagrantly brag about the mistreatment of detainees and speak in derogatory or even racist terms about them in front of groups of officers.’
Tulley highlighted what he called a ‘culture of silence’ and complained that grievance procedures were futile. He explains that his ex-colleague had complained about the conditions faced by the detainees but ‘was called a grass, she was pushed out, she was bullied, and she ended up leaving shortly afterwards’. ‘I knew that if I did the same as her, then the exact same thing was going to happen to me,’ he said.
Tulley confessed that he ‘always felt a sense of guilt about working there’: ‘I was still a cog in an inhumane machine which drove people to complete despair… I saw my work with the BBC as an opportunity to try and change that.’
Tulley said that the most destructive element of immigration detention was its indefinite nature. ‘It destroyed detainees, it completely stripped them of any sort of hope,’ he said.
‘You could see the deterioration in the well-being of detainees over time, arriving at the centre with some hope that if they kept themselves together, things would be fine, and as the weeks and months would pass on and there was no prospect of release or removal, you know, you’d see people that were sort of seemingly together and — become — you know, start to self-harm, take drugs or attempt to take their own lives.’
Stephanie Harrison QC described the distress of one of the detainees she represented. ‘We saw before our eyes what it means when we say to break someone’s moral and physical integrity,’ she said. ‘That howling was the howling of a man whose basic humanity had been stripped from him, and we say this inquiry must give very careful consideration and come to the conclusion that he was subjected not just to inhuman treatment, but also to torture.’
Harrison said the experience of her client ‘wasn’t a one-off, isolated incident — although that would be enough’. ‘It was part of a targeted pattern of physical mistreatment, abuse and humiliation.’
Harrison also commented that there was a ‘wilful tendency’ on the part of staff to treat a vulnerable detainee’s expression of distress as ‘signs of non-compliance, resistance or aggression’ which resulted in the use of ‘further, prolonged, high-level restraint’.
Nick Armstrong, a barrister representing other detainees, said that, in addition to G4S, the Home Office was ‘fully implicated’ in mistreatment.
Armstrong described four hours of video footage admitted as evidence. A word search revealed 1,407 instances of the word ‘fuck’, 74 instances of the word ‘cunt’ and 21 for the word ‘bitch’. ‘It has become endemic and it is coarsening and hardening and it is leading back to that ragged, febrile and hostile environment,’ Armstrong commented.
Armstrong concluded his opening statement to the inquiry by stating: ‘the problems at Brook House were long standing and they were deep. It is hoped that you and your inquiry can identify them and bring about real change.’
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