Monday, 12 July 2010

Brook House IRC: A Sorry Tale

In the latest of a long line of condemnatory inspection reports on the running of the detention estate, Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has severely criticised the management and staff of outsourcing privateers G4S who run the category B prison-standard Brook House detention centre for running "one of the least safe immigration detention facilities we have inspected, with deeply frustrated detainees and demoralised staff, some of whom lacked the necessary confidence to manage those in their care."

The report highlights serious failings in a number of areas, including bullying; "the worst results ever seen in the IRC estate about levels of safety"; inappropriate use of force by "demoralised staff" on "deeply frustrated detainees"; inappropriate use of isolation in defiance of Detention Centre rules; a lack of purposeful activity; the widespread availability of drugs; problematic access legal advice and representation; a lack of confidence in the complaints system amongst detainees; "clearly inadequate" mental health care; restricted access to education and exercise; and a lack of welfare provision and systematic pre-release support, and goes on to make 188 separate recommendations on how the centre's regime should be improved.

At the core of these failings are a number of problems inherent in the way the detention system operates. Firstly, Brook House was originally designed to operate as a high security short-term handling centre for detainees including ex-prisoners facing imminent deportation. Yet many detainees are held there for far longer than originally envisaged, the routine experience across the detention estate. "The challenge at Brook House was significantly compounded by poor design which built in boredom by providing too little purposeful activity on the erroneous assumption that detainees would be staying only a few days." Thus, 41% had been in Brook House more than 6 months and 15% more than 1 year. The poor design, coupled with the prolonged length of detention, also had a direct effect on the lack of activities available to detainees, and therefore had a direct knock-on effect on discipline.

Another problem, which is common to all facets of the detention estate, is the inevitable bureaucratic ineptitude of such systems where, for example, ten Zimbabweans were found to be being held at the centre, despite the suspension of enforced removals to Harare. One of these had been in detention for three years and four months. Such problems can be laid directly at the door of the UK Borders Agency. However, many of the problems the Inspectorate found at Brook House were as a direct result of the way G4S operates.

G4S has done very nicely out of running parts of the last year, contributing a tidy sum to the £500m in pre-tax profit it made last year on an overall group turnover of £7bn. And like most other outsourcing companies, it maximises its profits by cutting its running costs to the bone: employing poorly trained staff on the lowest wages at at the lowest staffing levels they can get away with. The consequence is a high staff turnover and low morale. This was exacerbated at Brook House by what the report terms "an outbreak of serious disorder the previous summer", an incident that the company and UKBA played down at the time.

The result is what appears to be a general lack of communication between staff and prisoners and "a high level of spontaneous use of force in response to incidents on wings and in the separation unit", something that appears to relate directly to the staff's own perceived lack of control over the detainees. The inspection also found "[t]here was little confidence in the complaints system. There were some long delays in replies to complaints, which were often unhelpful and likely to frustrate." Compared to the standard detention estate comparator, Brook House residents made significantly more complaints 39% vs. 33%, but only 16% (4) of the 25 non-English speaking respondents (against 44% of the 129 English speakers). This appears in large part due to the fact that, whilst complaint forms were available in 8 languages, the actual instructions on how to complain were only available in English.*

Detainees and visitors to Brook House have complained about the way the centre operates from day one and nothing much has changed. In fact, the situation has deteriorated and it's time that the government cut its losses and closed this expensive white elephant. It has the perfect excuse: give G4S the elbow and save some of our hard earned taxes.

* Additionally, "significantly fewer non-English speakers (32%) than English speakers (56%) reported being treated well or very well by escort staff and 36% compared with 52% by reception staff. Significantly more non-English speakers (80%) than English speakers (66%) reported feeling unsafe."

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