Impose time limit on immigration detention, says chief inspector of prisons

Members of British emergency services are seen outside Harmondsworth detention centre, in west London © Toby Melville
Calls to limit how long a detainee can be held at an immigration removal center have gathered momentum after it was revealed a man was held in one of the UK’s notorious facilities for more than five years.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke has backed the movement after admitting the current system designed to avoid long terms in detention does not always work.

Newly appointed Clarke is skeptical of the Home Office’s current prevention system and cited two examples of the department recommending the release of detainees despite both still being held a year on.

Clarke said an inspection of a facility in Harmondsworth, London, last September found 18 detainees who had been held for over a year, with one man being held for an accumulative five years, and many cases of detainees being held in over-crowded accommodation.

Clarke continued to condemn the current system, stating that doctors’ advice to release certain detainees had been consistently ignored.

“Some bedrooms designed for two housed three or even four people,” read Clarke’s report.

The center was also reportedly holding 661 men in poor and often unsanitary living conditions.

“The standard of repair, cleanliness and hygiene in the residential units was unacceptably poor. Showers and toilets in the older wings were in a severely insanitary condition,” said Clarke.

The new owners of the center, the Mitie group, blamed the deteriorating conditions on “a period of drift” under previous owners GEO group and this was confirmed by the report. 

“Lack of investment in the last stages of the previous contract was evidenced by the appalling state of some of the residential units,” said the Inspector’s report.

Improvement is expected in the center courtesy of its new ownership but Clarke warns there is still much to be done.

“The decline has been arrested by the time of this inspection, but the center has not yet recovered and there were substantial concerns in a number of areas,” said Clarke’s report.

In September 2015, an all-party group of MPs called for a 28-day limit on immigration detention and this has been echoed since the latest inspection.

Conservative MP David Burrowes stated last year that despite detainees never being convicted of illegal activity, many were living in “prison-like conditions for administrative reasons.”

Clarke has recognized these failings but promises that conditions were improving.

“While the state of drift that we described in our last report has been arrested and the direction of travel is now positive, it is unacceptable that conditions were allowed to decline so much towards the end of the last contract,” said Clarke’s report.

Clarke holds both the Home Office and the center’s current owners responsible for maintaining and improving standards.

“The Home Office and its contractors have a responsibility to ensure that this is not allowed to happen again,” said Clarke.