New block built to higher security prison standards
26th May 2010: Harmondsworth immigration removal centre will accommodate more than 630 detainees, making it the biggest processing and deportation centre in Europe.
The main immigration detention centre near Heathrow has the largest network of immigration custody centres in Europe, with more than 3,100 places. The new extension at Harmondsworth will add 364 more beds to double its existing capacity of 259.
The chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, while inspecting the privately run Harmondsworth in 2006 found it to be the worst immigration removal centre, out of the entire lot examined. The healthcare was also inappropriately poor and required urgent attention both in terms of quality and quantity of provision besides, the approach of healthcare staff.
The report brought out that about 10 percent of the 213 detainees held at the time of the inspection in January had been held in detention for more than six months.
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 Camps field House near Oxford. The long-term purpose-built immigration centre was opened in 2001.
Owers said the results of the most recent check carried out in January this year demonstrated improvements in culture and regime at the centre. At the same time the chief inspector suggested that the opening of a new block and doubling the size of the centre, built to higher security prison standards, would pose a challenge to these improvements.
The report further stated that this will provide prison-type accommodation, in small and somewhat harsh cells – at odds with the atmosphere and facilities in the current centre.
The changes will pose a significant challenge to managers looking further to implant recent progress and run a single, safe and decent centre.
The chief inspector’s fears were supported by Harmondsworth’s independent monitoring board. It said detention centres should not be built to prison designs.
The board head Hashi Syedain, said the room, to be shared by two people, was based on prison cells, with toilets located inside the room, behind limited screening. Adding the board head said they would offer lower standards of decency than the facilities they replace.
The chief inspector’s report also reflected that the relations between staff and detainees were cordial and improving. There was little evidence of stress or disagreement 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.
Meanwhile the United Kingdom Border Agency disagreed that the extra prison-type accommodation would jeopardise recent improvements. The UKBA’s Director for Criminality and Detention, David Wood, said the expansion of Harmondsworth would allow the UK Border Agency to remove even more foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers. He added that they would work with the contractors to make sure the improvements praised by the chief inspector’s report continued.
Owers said many detainees were still arriving at Harmondsworth after extreme and unexplained movements between removal centres across England. Many detainees suffer long journeys without food or sufficient comfort breaks.