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HMI Prisons says ‘shocking’ conditions at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre are worst ever witnessed


Prisons watchdog publishes highly critical inspection report following visit to detention centre at Heathrow

Date of Publication:

His Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) today published an exceptionally critical report following an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC) carried out in February of this year.

HMI Prisons logoImage credit: UK GovernmentHMI Prisons' inspectors say they witnessed the worst conditions they have ever seen in immigration detention in the UK, describing the conditions as truly shocking.

You can download the 68-page inspection report here.

Harmondsworth is an immigration detention centre near Heathrow airport that is run by the contractor Mitie Care and Custody. The centre held 454 detainees at the time of the inspection by HMI Prisons.

Inspectors found that the buildings at Harmondsworth were dilapidated, run down, grubby and, in some areas, filthy. The physical environment in many parts of the IRC was described as "unacceptably poor".

Many of the staff were very inexperienced and there was insufficient supervision of detainees by staff. Drug use at the IRC had become increasingly prevalent. Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said he was shocked to see detainees at Harmondsworth openly smoking cannabis.

Taylor commented: "The level of chaos that we found at Harmondsworth was truly shocking and we left deeply concerned that some of those held there were at imminent risk of harm."

Harmondsworth received a 'poor' rating by HMI Prisons for overall safety. A survey by HMI Prisons found that 44% of detainees said they currently felt unsafe. There was a high level of unmet mental health need, and the psychology provision was greatly under-resourced.

The report states: "Inspectors were particularly concerned at the levels of care for the most vulnerable. The support for those who had said they felt suicidal was not good enough, and the centre's quality assurance systems were not working. While there had been no suicides since our last inspection, there had been some serious attempts, including one during our inspection that resulted in grave injuries to the detainee. Leaders at the centre had failed to act on the findings from investigations into previous incidents; ligature points, for example, had not been removed."

A survey by HMI Prisons' found that almost half of detainees said they felt suicidal. There was weak identification and management of risks and vulnerability on arrival, and policies and procedures to protect the most vulnerable were insufficient.

The report notes: "Home Office policies to minimise the length of detention of vulnerable detainees were not sufficiently effective. Rule 35 reports were usually not produced for the many detainees considered to be at high risk of self-harm. Home Office leaders could not provide consistent data on the total average length of detention, but even the lowest estimates showed that detainees were being held for long and potentially damaging periods of detention, and then simply released."

Overall, HMI Prisons found that too many detainees at Harmondsworth were held for unreasonable periods. "Six people had been detained for more than a year, two of them for over two years. The longest detention was for 753 days," the report says.

Detainees told HMI Prisons that some of their biggest concerns were the lack of information on why they they were detained and the delays in resolving their case.

HMI Prisons found detainees' legal cases had become unreasonably prolonged for a variety of reasons, including poor case progression, a lack of travel documentation and delays in the provision of appropriate release accommodation. Only a third of cases resulted in a deportation.

Charlie Taylor said: "Nobody should be detained in an immigration removal centre unless they are going to be removed quickly from the country, yet around 60% of detainees were released from the centre, with only a third deported, which begs the question of why so much taxpayer money was being spent keeping them locked up in the first place."

With regard to access to legal advice and representation, the report notes: "In our survey, 52% of detainees said they had a solicitor. In our interviews, some told us they were unaware that they could get free legal advice in the centre, while others said it was difficult to get an appointment. Until recently, there had been insufficient legal aid surgery appointment slots and detainees had waited up to 12 days for an appointment. An increase in appointment places had greatly improved access, but most surgeries only took place by telephone.

"There was poor access to legal materials in the centre, with the library stocking legal textbooks up to 20 years out of date. When asked, staff could not locate other useful reference material, such as self-help guides produced by Bail for Immigration Detainees. Detainees had access to all useful internet sites, except the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website, which was blocked."

In concluding, HMI Prisons says there is a huge amount of work to be done to get Harmondsworth up to standard, but progress will be difficult as a result of the ongoing retendering process by the Home Office to decide who will be running the IRC in the future.

Charlie Taylor described the retendering process as "shambolic" and said the contractual uncertainties had made it all but impossible to recruit permanent senior staff.