Watchdog condemns ‘persistent failings’ at Harmondsworth
The prisons watchdog yesterday published a damning report into conditions and detention at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre.
The HM Inspectorate report, following an inspection in September 2017, detailed consistent ‘considerable failings’ in safety and respect for detainees in a removal centre. Chief prisons inspector, Peter Clarke, said ‘detainees, many identified as vulnerable, were not being adequately safeguarded. Some were held for unacceptably long periods’.
Foreign nationals are held at Harmondsworth awaiting conclusion of their cases. The inspection found that, owing to the lack of a time limit on detention, 23 men had been held at Harmondsworth for over a year. One individual had been detained for over 4 and a half years. Clarke described this as ‘unacceptable’.
A 2015 inspection of the same centre, Europe’s largest with a maximum capacity of 676 detainees, highlighted concerns over safety. Despite some unsatisfactorily small and slow improvements, the report yesterday described how ‘in some areas, there had been a deterioration.’
Mental health needs were often not met. Detainees were subject to some disproportionate security restrictions and living conditions were below decent standards. It is time for the Home Office and contractors to think again about how to ensure that more substantial progress is made by the time we return.
Clarke also repeated his request that section 35 reports should be replaced with full professional assessments. A section 35 report seeks to determine whether detention will be harmful to the individual’s health; this includes whether they have been victims of torture.
Nine out of 10 individuals sampled during the inspection showed ‘evidence of torture…but [the Home Office] maintained detention of all but one of the men involved, despite this clear evidence of vulnerability.’
Conditions within the centre were heavily criticised by the report. Bedbugs were found to be ‘endemic’, many areas remained dirty, mice infested certain areas and showers and toilets were poorly ventilated.
The detainees described a ‘sense of purposelessness and boredom’ within Harmondsworth, with the inspection finding that only 29% of individuals could fill their time. This perhaps went some way to explaining an increased availability and usage of psychoactive drugs, such as Spice.
A BBC Panorama investigation last year found that detainees were ‘mocked and abused’ at a separate centre near Gatwick. In 2013 inspectors at Harmondsworth ‘identified the disgraceful treatment of an ill and elderly man who was kept in handcuffs as he died in hospital’.
The limited improvement following numerous inspections frustrated Clarke: ‘For the third consecutive inspection, we found considerable failings in the areas of safety and respect’.
A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report: ‘When people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible, and detention is reviewed on a regular basis. The detainee’s welfare remains of the utmost importance throughout.’
The Home Office noted certain positives within the report about faith provisions, welfare and healthcare provision. ‘However, elements of this report make for difficult reading and we are committed to a programme of transformation.’