Officers at a UK detention centre choked, abused and forced migrants naked from their cells amid a “toxic culture” where detainees where mistreated in “prison-like” conditions, a bombshell inquiry has revealed.
An 800-page report into conditions at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre in West Sussex found guards used physical violence to “punish” detainees, while “unacceptable, often abusive” behaviour was dismissed as “banter”.
In one “terrifying” incident detailed in the report, a detention officer at the formerly G4S-run site near Gatwick airport placed his hands around a distressed detainee’s neck and said: “You f*****g piece of s***t, because I’m going to put you to f*****g sleep.”
Other shocking incidents included men being forcibly moved from their cells when naked or near-naked, while officers were found to repeatedly use dehumanising language, including mocking phrases such as: “If he dies, he dies”.
The report, which looked at conditions at the centre between April and August 2017, also found:
- 19 breaches of human rights laws relating to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
- Examples of staff using “abusive, racist and derogatory language” towards detainees
- Evidence of men being held in “harsh” and “prison-like” conditions, including being forced to share dirty cells with poor ventilation and unscreened toilets
- Examples of staff inflicting pain “inappropriately” and using equipment such as riot shields and balaclavas in an “intimidating” way
Ms Eves said she “rejected the narrative” from the Home Office and G4S that the incidents at Brook House were the result of a “small minority” of G4S staff.
She also said she had been “particularly troubled” by the evidence of some of those staff who remain working at Brook House, noting a “lack of reflection even amongst those who now hold senior positions”.
“This casts doubt over how far the cultural changes that have been described to me have really taken root. I fear that there is still some way to go,” she said.
Ms Eves called for wide-ranging changes to ensure “people do not suffer in the same way as those at Brook House did”, including the introduction of a a 28-day time limit for detention.
She also called for a new detention services order on the use of force, and urged the Home Office to issue an immediate instruction to contractors managing immigration removal centres “that force must be used only as a last resort, using approved techniques”.
The inquiry was launched in November 2019 following a BBC Panorama programme in September 2017 that aired harrowing undercover footage of the alleged abuse of detainees by detention officers.
The report found 19 incidents over a five-month period that were capable of amounting to mistreatment under Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
This Article states that: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Ms Eves said: “That I found this number of incidents took place within such a limited timeframe of five months is of significant concern.
“Under the Home Office, and its contractor G4S, Brook House was not sufficiently decent, secure or caring for detained people or its staff at the time these events took place.
“An environment flourished in which unacceptable treatment became more likely.”
Ms Eves noted dangerous restraint techniques being used and an example of derogatory comments from staff to a man who was recovering from medical treatment following a drug overdose.
She also noted the often heightened vulnerability of someone who might end up in such a detention centre.
“There is no higher role for the state than as a guardian of those who are detained and in its care,” she said.
“For people who do not have citizenship, their precarious status makes them inherently more vulnerable, and factors such as language barriers or poor health can intersect to make them yet more susceptible to harm.”
According to the report, one detainee, who had been identified as extremely vulnerable to self-harm and suicide, was subjected to threatening language and denied access to shower, which prevented him from taking part in a cleansing ritual that was part of his religion.
The report was critical of the site itself, which was designed to the specification of a category B prison, including “tall razor wire fencing”, despite the detainees not being prisoners.
Witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry described it as “unfit for purpose” and it did not have the facilities to house detainees for “more than a few days”, despite many speeding a significantly longer time there.
This “prison-like” environment included men sharing cells with unscreened toilets, poor ventilation, and a lack of cleanliness.
The report said this led to “humiliating experiences” for detained people, in addition to the “constant noise” from the nearby airport.
There was overcrowding at the facility and detained people often lacked access to the internet with “unnecessary restrictions imposed on websites and, too often, computers were broken”.
Drug use was a “significant problem” at Brook House, in particular the psychoactive substance Spice. There was a “sense of defeat” from staff about how to treat the problem and on how to deal with detainees who had taken the drug.
The Chair also heard evidence that the indefinite nature of the detention at the centre caused “uncertainty and anxiety” for detained people and had “a detrimental effect on their well-being”.
The report contains 33 recommendations that, if implemented, could provide “a more humane, compassionate, and professional environment for immigration detention.”
One of the key recommendations made is that the government should introduce a new policy that detainees should only be kept at immigration removal centres for a maximum of 28 days.
The recommendation comes as the government is planning to give home secretary powers to detain people indefiniately as part of the Illegal Migration bill.
The Chair has urged the Home Office and other recipients to publish their responses to the report in six months.
She added: “It is my sincere hope that more than mere lip service will be paid to this report. The events that occurred at Brook House cannot be repeated.”
G4S has since stopped running Brook House, with outsourcing giant Serco having taken over.
A Home Office spokesperson said the abuse was “unacceptable”, but said the government had since made “significant improvements to uphold the welfare and dignity of those detained”.
“We remain committed to ensuring safety and security in all Immigration Removal Centres and to learn lessons from Brook House to ensure these events never happen again,” the Home Office said.
A G4S spokesperson said: “G4S has provided its full support to the Brook House Inquiry and will carefully consider the Inquiry’s recommendations.
“The vast majority of employees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre were focused on the wellbeing of the detained people and carried out their duties to a high standard, often in exceptionally challenging circumstances.
“We were appalled when, in 2017, a number of former employees acted in a way that was contrary to our values, policies and their training and for this we are sorry. This behaviour was unacceptable and the company took swift action, including dismissing a number of individuals and commissioning an independent review carried out by Verita.
“In addition to actions taken by G4S to strengthen governance and controls at Brook House, the company accepted and implemented all of Verita’s recommendations including improving the detainee experience and support provided, and the training and development of employees.
“Following the improvements implemented by G4S, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons carried out an inspection in 2019 and “found no evidence” that the behaviours seen in the BBC programme were present. Instead the “detainee survey and interviews found that most detainees were positive about the way they were treated by staff.”
“G4S ceased operating Brook House in 2020 and no longer operates any Immigration Removal Centres.”