UK detention centre to double capacity
Harmondsworth immigration removal centre will hold 630 detainees at one time, says report
The Guardian, Wednesday 26 May 2010
The capacity of the main immigration detention centre near Heathrow is to be doubled, making it the biggest processing and deportation centre in Europe. Harmondsworth immigration removal centre will, from next month, be able to hold more than 630 detainees at any one time, according to a report published today.
The privately run immigration detention centre has been rebuilt since a major disturbance in 2006, the second in its eight and a half year history, destroyed two wings and halved its official capacity to 259 detainees.
But the chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, said the imminent opening of a higher security prison-type block threatens recent improvements at the "troubled" removal centre.
In 2006 Owers said Harmondsworth, which opened in 2001 as a long-term purpose-built immigration centre, was "the worst immigration removal centre we have inspected". The original contractors, Kalyx, formerly known as United Kingdom Detention Services, were replaced in June last year by the American private security company, the GEO Group, which also operates Campsfield House near Oxford.
Britain already has the largest network of immigration detention centres in Europe, with more than 3,100 places. The new extension at Harmondsworth will add 364 more beds to that total and more than double its existing capacity of 259.
Owers says since the 2006 disturbance the prison inspectors have charted a "slow but steady progress from this low point". The results of the most recent inspection carried out in January this year and published today show demonstrable improvements in culture and regime.
"However, the imminent opening of a new block, doubling the size of the centre and built to higher security prison standards, would pose a challenge to these improvements," says the chief inspector's report.
Today's report said the inspectors were concerned about the potential impact of the new building, due to open next month. "This will provide prison-type accommodation, in small and somewhat oppressive cells ? at odds with the atmosphere and facilities in the current centre," said Owers. "It would also double the population, making Harmondsworth the biggest removal centre in Europe. This combination will pose a considerable challenge to managers in seeking to embed recent progress and run a single, safe and decent centre."
The chief inspector's fears are supported by Harmondsworth's independent monitoring board, which said the new block would increase its capacity to 630 detainees. It says detention centres should not be built to prison designs. "The new rooms, to be shared by two people, are based on prison cells, with toilets located inside the room, behind limited screening," said Hashi Syedain, the board's head. "They will offer lower standards of decency than the facilities they replace."
The chief inspector's report found that relations between staff and detainees were cordial and improving, with little evidence of tension or conflict among the many different nationalities and ethnic groups in the centre.
A decision to allow freedom of movement around the centre had led to significant improvements in the atmosphere, and the use of force and other disciplinary measures had dropped in the previous six months.
But, healthcare was unacceptably poor and required urgent attention both in terms of quality and quantity of provision, and the approach of healthcare staff.
The United Kingdom Border Agency disputed that the extra prison-type accommodation would jeopardise recent improvements: "The expansion of Harmondsworth will allow the UK Border Agency to remove even more foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers," said David Wood, the UKBA's director for criminality and detention. "We will work with our contractors to make sure the improvements praised by the chief inspector's report continue."
Owers said many detainees were still arriving at Harmondsworth after "excessive and unexplained movements" between removal centres across England. Many had endured long journeys without food or sufficient comfort breaks.
The report said that about 10% of the 213 detainees held at the time of the inspection in January had been held in detention for more than six months.
The Queen's speech confirmed the coalition's determination to end the detention of children in immigration centres but indicated no change of policy in Whitehall's officially stated policy of trying to increase the numbers of illegal migrants who are sent home. The Lib Dems dropped their election demand for an 'earned citizenship" route for irregular migrants who had been in Britain for more than 10 years as part of the coalition negotiations.