Britain: report describes “filthy” conditions at Immigration Removal Centre

By Liz Smith
2 July 2004

An official report into Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), South Yorkshire, has outlined the appalling conditions faced by the centre’s 100 inmates. The report, Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre 2-4 February 2004, describes its findings during its recent unannounced visit to the centre in Doncaster.

Lindholme IRC is tasked with holding those “detained by the Immigration Service as over-stayers, illegal entrants or failed asylum seekers prior to their removal from the country. It also holds a proportion of detainees whose cases have not yet been determined but who are considered to be at risk of absconding.”

It is the only IRC attached to a prison—Lindholme Category C prison—and is managed as part of it. This in itself has led to the situation where detainees are treated in a similar fashion to prisoners and are subjected to the same regimes and rules by prison officers. The report recommends that serious consideration be given as to whether the Doncaster centre is, or can be, an appropriate place to hold immigration detainees.

Appalling conditions

The report, which was carried out as a follow-up to one in 2002, states: “Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the inspection was the filthy and dilapidated state of many of the communal areas. Paint was peeling, floors had ingrained dirt, and all of the telephone rooms—very important for detainees’ contact with the outside world—were in a disgraceful state. Two lacked chairs, and all were covered in graffiti, among which staff had written up the Samaritans’ number. Inspectors were so concerned that they took photographs of these areas... There had clearly been problems in managing the cleaning contract: but it was noticeable that, by contrast, the parts of the centre used by staff were in excellent condition.”

A prison inspectors’ report in April 2003 revealed that staff routinely imposed random strip-searches after visits. Detainees are also strip-searched on admission to the detention centre as a matter of routine, without any reason given.

Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that the establishment was “still locked into a Prison Service culture.” An example of this is when a detainee is segregated. Detainees are moved from the IRC to the segregation unit of the neighbouring prison without authorisation from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

Payments to detainees were found to be far lower than in other centres meaning that those without other means could not maintain basic contact with family and friends. “Notionally, detainees had £2.50 a week. However, the cost of televisions and of initial phone-cards was deducted from this, so that during the first four weeks a detainee would receive only £1.50.” This was exacerbated by the fact that, “contrary to Detention Centre Rules, there was no pager system to alert detainees to incoming calls from relatives or legal representatives.”

Due to the nature of the centre it was found that few of the staff, if any, had received specialist training for the move from a prison officer role dealing with convicted prisoners in a category C prison to that of an officer working in IRCs. The report noted: “We observed several incidents that indicated a lack of cultural awareness among the staff group. Detainees told us that they felt as if they were in a prison.”

When Lindholme was inspected in 2002 it was found that it “did not provide a safe environment for detainees and our particular concern was that detainees’ sense of insecurity was exacerbated by the difficulty in receiving ongoing information about the progress of their cases.” The report said that “[l]ittle had changed in terms of social activity time since our last inspection and this remained insufficient.”

The inspectors discovered that detainees were locked in the living units with no recreational facilities other than television over the staff lunch period and from 7.45 p.m. in the evening.

This lack of recreational time and facilities did not meet the Immigration and Nationality Directorate’s minimum standards for IRCs. The inspectors were told that the regime hours were constrained by the use of prison officers shift patterns.

The report draws attention to the fact that the detainees, whose applications for asylum have been rejected and are held pending deportation, are not helped to close their affairs in the country or even see their families before being removed.

It cites as one example the case of the British wife of a man due to be deported. The woman was unable to see her husband prior to his deportation due to the journey time to the centre and its restricted visiting hours. An immigration officer had suggested that she might be able to see him informally at Heathrow airport, prior to his boarding the plane that would remove him from the country, but those responsible for escorting her husband ruled this out.

The practice of telling detainees at the last moment that they would be deported, sometimes with just a few hours notice, had been especially criticised in the 2002 report, for increasing anxiety in an already stressful situation.

That report also found that staff at the centre displayed a “lack of understanding and empathy with people from other cultures.” Inspectors witnessed a non-English speaker being shouted at in English in an attempt to make him understand. It had also revealed a high level of dissatisfaction with health-care provision.

Fast track deportations

The latest report only underscores these concerns. Inspectors found that health care was being provided only at the basic level and did not seem to be attracting sufficient senior management attention.

But whilst the report makes recommendations to correct the malpractices that have been carried out against failed asylum seekers in detention, it does not address the root cause of these.

The Labour government has launched a draconian attack on asylum seekers, utilising them both as a scapegoat for social problems created by its own policies, and as a stalking horse for making more sweeping attacks on democratic rights. A raft of legislation has seen the government acquire powers to “fast track” the removal of failed asylum seekers, with little regard for their civil liberties, let alone physical and mental well-being. Even if Lindholme were to close, the government proposes to increase the number of detention centres in order to speed up the process of removal.

The report brought promises from the immigration minister Des Browne that certain practices would be ended at Lindholme by October. But Browne brushed aside concerns at Lindholme’s closeness to the prison service, stating: “Detention is a vital part of an effective immigration system and we are working to expand the immigration detention estate with a new centre opening near Heathrow later this year.”

Tim Finch of the Refugee Council has said: “It was always a mistake for Lindholme to be so closely located to a prison and it was highly likely the whole centre would operate like a prison. Immigration detainees have not committed a crime. It is questionable in most circumstances whether they should be detained at all. However, if they have to, the conditions should be decent and humane.”