Friday, 16 July 2010

Brook House: An Alternative View

The following article was offered to the Guardian 'Comment Is Free' strand last week. We assume they were not interested as no response was forthcoming.

The Chief Inspector of Prison's Report on the full announced inspection of
Brook House Immigration Removal Centre in March certain makes for depressing reading:

"one of the least safe immigration detention facilities we have inspected";

"deeply frustrated detainees and demoralised staff";

"[We found] a degree of despair amongst detainees about safety...which we have rarely encountered. Bullying and violence were serious problems and – unusually for the immigration detention estate - drugs were a serious problem. Many detainees were ex-prisoners and a number compared their experience in Brook House negatively to that in prison";

"Use of force was high, separation was often used as a punishment, contrary to the Detention Centre Rules, and freedom of movement had been restricted in an attempt to combat violence."

But should we be in any way surprised by the Inspectorate's finding?

As the report itself acknowledges, Brook House was originally designed for holding 426 detainees "for only a short time before removal or release", and here lies one of the two cornerstones of its myriad of problems.

It was never meant to hold, for example, the numbers of detainees that the Inspector found had been there, for example, for 4 or more months (40%). These were not just the inevitable victims of the mission creep languishing in the system that typifies 'temporary administrative detention' (17% of BH detainees detained for 6 months or more, three for more than 3 years), they are the very 'foreign national prisoners' slated for deportation that the Category B prison-style facility was built to process.

The creation of this special category of prisoner was a typical piece of ill thought out vindictive New Labour policy, pandering to Mr and Mrs Daily Mail reader. Not only patently racist, punishing someone for being a foreigner as well as for committing a crime, it has clogged up the detention estate with ex-prisoners who it is unable to remove from the country.

Good publicity in theory, bad policy in practice.

The other wellspring of Brook House's problems is the way in which it is run and, more specifically, the way G4S operates what are now recognised as the 3 worst run English detention centres. G4S, like all large outsourcing companies, maximises its profits by paying its staff lower wages, giving them less training and operating at lower staff ratios than exist in the public sector. This inevitably leads to a high rate of turnover amongst an inexperienced staff that, according to the report, was exacerbated by last June's disturbance.

The inevitable results are an embattled and pressurised staff who "lacked the confidence to manage bad behaviour", consistently responded to incidents with a "high level of spontaneous use of force" and "were bullied by more difficult detainees." And it was not just the guards that felt unsafe, 68% of detainees surveyed said that they had felt unsafe at some point during their time in Brook House, against 42% for the IRC comparator. The most recent figure for Colnbrook IRC, run by Serco and the only other Category B standard detention centre, was 61% (against a comparator of 48% in 2007).

Another factor highlighted in the report that throws light onto how the centre operates is what the Inspector calls "a significant drugs problem"; though how significant is open to debate. Whilst there had been a massive increase in staff security incident report about drugs in the IRC's first 9 months of operation, seizures were very few and the Inspectorate's own survey of detainees only found 35% of respondents labelling drug availability as being a safety concern, the same as the last inspection of Colnbrook in 2008.

That said, it is not surprising that there is a drugs problem given the pressures created by the poor design of the prison; the lack of activities; the long lengths of detention; with many detainees facing uncertain futures, removed from their UK families; isolated and facing violence inside Brook House; not to mention those suffering PTSD.

Interestingly, like most prisons, the main route in for drugs has been identified as visits. Though, given the recent Policy Exchange report's suggestion that the majority of drugs in prison involve corrupt prison officers, and the low staff wages, they might look elsewhere.

Now, given that announced inspections usually mean everybody, including the prisoners, are on their best behaviour, the picture the Inspectorate gets is often skewed. One group, however, other than the detainees themselves, who do get a regular unvarnished view of how an admittedly small area of the detention centre operates, are the visitors. And it is this group who have had to bear the brunt of the management's growing paranoia over drugs, as well as the standard problems resulting from poor design and staff shortages.

Not only do they have to put up with a cramped visiting room with a limited number of visiting slots and no access to toilet facilities but, since the increased drugs-related security, the length of time it takes to get into visit has significantly increased, eating into valuable visiting time. That, plus staff shortages, has resulted in daily visiting hours being split into two separate sessions and increasingly petty rules, like where one can and cannot sit when one finally does get inside.

All have led to increased tension and regular angry disruptions of visiting times by visitors. Yet G4S’ own ‘satisfaction’ figures posted in the same room claim that 80% of visitors are treated with respect and dignity (the Inspectorate’s figure was 53%).

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