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Brook House: racist, violent and dangerous


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Staff working at Brook House immigration removal centre were verbally and physically abusive towards the people who were detained, including the use of extremely racist language. There were 19 incidents of inhuman and degrading treatment of people at a single removal centre over a period of just five months. That is just one of the troubling findings of the Brook House inquiry which has published its report into the mistreatment of people who were detained at Brook House immigration removal centre.


The inquiry was set up in November 2019 to investigate the mistreatment of people who were detained at Brook House immigration removal centre between 1 April and 31 August 2017. That period relates to that covered by whistleblower turned undercover reporter Callum Tulley in the BBC’s Panorama documentary ‘Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets’.

The government did not want this inquiry to take place. It only came about due to the persistence of some of the affected detainees and their legal teams who brought judicial review proceedings to force an inquiry. The Secretary of State at the time went to the Court of Appeal to try to avoid it taking place in this format. At the inquiry itself, the Home Office continued to argue against the ability of the inquiry to find that there had been a breach of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Looking at the evidence you can see why they were trying to avoid this.

Over 100,000 pages of material and over 90 hours of footage were reviewed by the inquiry. Public hearings took place over 46 days and oral evidence was heard from 73 witnesses. Oral and written evidence was taken from 25 people who had previously been detained.

The inquiry has been impressively transparent, with the hearings and evidence all available online. The report has links to relevant footage and the Chair actively encourages people to watch this, saying that “it is not possible to appreciate the true nature of the events that took place” without doing so.

Volume three of the report has a useful summary of the relevant rules and legislation, as well as a chronology of events relating to Brook House starting from February 2008 when the contract to manage the immigration removal centres was awarded.

First hand accounts

Accounts from several people who were detained during the relevant period are included towards the beginning of the report. These were included to provide insight into the personal experiences of those affected by immigration detention and the impact that it had on them.

The accounts are important to read. They include a former member of the British Army who had served as a Commonwealth soldier for eleven and a half years and was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, later committing a criminal offence which led to him ending up in immigration detention. Another person was married to an EU citizen when he was detained. A visually impaired man was detained for two years.

The effects of detention on people’s mental health is described in detail. When reading these stories it is also worth remembering Frank Ospina, who entered immigration detention without any mental health issues but later died there. 

Incidents described in the findings of fact section of the report include staff holding people’s throat, violently stamping on their toes, inappropriate use of restraint, as well as the use of racist and derogatory language.

Report findings

A lot of what is in the report has been raised elsewhere. Issues with interpretation and the deficiencies in reception and induction were raised in the most recent report on adults at risk by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, for example. The use of a policy of ‘no-notice removals’ increased the levels of uncertainty, fear and the use of force against people. Much of this echoes what happened at Brook House last year when the government tried to send people to Rwanda.

The Chair was also concerned about people having difficulty in accessing the internet, including unnecessary restrictions being placed on websites (we have heard anecdotally about Free Movement being blocked in the past) impeding their access to justice.

Staff, including medical professionals, failed to apply the safeguards in place for people who may be vulnerable to harm in immigration detention. It was also found that there were serious failings in the application of the Rule 35 process, and the inquiry’s medical expert found that around 75% of the reports were inadequately completed.

The report said that the inquiry has not received any evidence of any fundamental changes to the system of safeguards since 2017. Issues with the rule 35 process were also identified in the most recent adults at risk report. This is supposed to be a key protection mechanism to prevent harm to people in detention. The fact that it is not working should be a source of huge concern and action by the Home Office, however their attitude appears to be simply one of disbelief and disinterest.

Rules around isolation were misunderstood and misapplied, and the report found that this is an issue that persists under Serco. Isolation was used as a punishment, as well as for administrative convenience prior to a person’s removal or transfer and to manage people with mental health issues. The power was used 241 times during the relevant period but was only properly authorised in four.

Similarly, the use of force was used to provoke and punish, de-escalation techniques were not used and force was used other than as a last resort. Reports on the use of force were inaccurate or lacked detail, when they were even filed at all. Body worn cameras were not worn or were left inactive. The detention services order governing use of force in immigration detention is a prison one that is unsuited to people in immigration detention.

Penalties for G4S are set out on page 10 of volume two. Where a person self-harmed which resulted in death the fine was £10,000 per incident. If a detainee escaped from the centre the fine was £30,000. Self-harm resulting in injury which involved a failure to follow procedures would cost G4S £692 per incident. It was possible for G4S to provide mitigation which if accepted by the Home Office could mean that no fine was imposed. As stated in the report “this is indicative of a lack of sufficient prioritisation of the wellbeing of detained people”.

During the period looked at by the inquiry G4S incurred a fine of £32,154. The Home Office relied on G4S to self-report failures. Unsurprisingly then, the report states that data from G4S and the Home Office shows that there were 60 acts of self-harm during this period, none of which resulted in a penalty.

Of the 84 incidents in the Panorama documentary, the Home Office found only four that needed to be reported under the contract. It would be interesting to know about the level of financial deductions currently made in relation to immigration removal centres, as this seems a good indicator of wider issues. Under the new contract with Serco, death and escape are now both worth the same and result in a £50,000 fine.

Both G4S and the Home Office sought to characterise the abuse as the actions of a small minority of staff. This was rejected by the Chair who said that these attempts minimised what had occurred and sought to distance G4S and the Home Office from their responsibility for the culture that enabled this mistreatment.


The recommendations are set out in volume two, a summary is below:

Appendix four in volume three is a fairly depressing read for anyone working in this area. It contains some of the more than 1,100 recommendations that have been made previously on immigration detention via various reviews, investigations, monitoring bodies and non-governmental organisations since 2003. In her live opening statement, the Chair said that “failure to act on previous recommendations is a dark thread that runs throughout this report”.

A problem of the past?

Medical Justice’s press release shows that in the year ending June 2023 20,354 people entered immigration detention. This included seven pregnant women and 66 were children. Only 22% of those held in detention were removed from the UK. Medical Justice clinicians carried out analysis of the medical assessments of 66 people held in immigration removal centres between 1 June 2022 and 27 March 2023. 

Of those, 52 had evidence of a history of torture, 29 had evidence of a history of trafficking and 25 had evidence of a history of both torture and trafficking. Detention had already caused the mental state of 64 clients to deteriorate and had caused harm to all 66 clients. 63 had a diagnosis of at least one mental health condition and 49 people were recorded as having self-harmed, suicidal thoughts and/or attempted suicide.  Medical Justice also found uses of force included during transfer to segregation, removal from suicide netting and transfer to hospital appointments. This is all still happening now and these problems are not limited to Brook House.


This report should be a source of immense shame for the Home Office and the government. When announcing the inquiry, the then Secretary of State stated

“The Government takes any allegation of mistreatment, and the welfare of immigration detainees, very seriously, and I want to establish the facts of what took place at Brook House and ensure that lessons are learnt to prevent these shocking events happening again”.

Despite this, there was silence from the government yesterday. The reports states that a formal response must be published within the next six months. The lack of an immediate apology and plan of action should be a further source of shame for those at the Home Office as well as in government. This is particularly the case given the report identified areas of current concern. The Home Office will probably try to cast this as a historical problem, but that is very much not the case.

Huge numbers of people are being unnecessarily detained and subject to inhumane conditions that cause damage to mental health. The lack of a time limit on detention is a huge factor in this, as anyone who has worked with people in detention knows. This recommendation must be implemented by the next government or more people will die.

According to the Home Office’s 2022 annual accounts, compensation payments for unlawful detention were made in 736 cases with damages totalling £16.1 million. This is up from 572 cases with damages of £12.7 million the year before.

This is not indicative of a trend where things are improving and it is due to get worse very soon. While much of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 is still theoretical at this stage as most of it has not been brought into force, the expansion of detention is happening at the end of this month.

Further, the Home Office’s attitude to oversight and challenge is poor and getting worse. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has pointed out that progress against recommendations relating to the detention of vulnerable people is poor, with 9 of 51 action points having been completed. When he raised concerns with the Immigration Minister about the rule 35 process as part of his most recent inspection, the Secretary of State responded by terminating the annual review.

So it is probably safe to say that this government is not going to do anything to improve things for people in immigration detention but that should not detract from what an important piece of work this is. There is a lot in this report that will be useful in the ongoing battle against the harms caused by immigration detention. Everyone involved in ensuring that a light was shone on these practices is to be commended, particularly those people who were detained and experienced these horrors first hand.

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Sonia Lenegan

Sonia Lenegan is an experienced immigration, asylum and public law solicitor. She has been practising for over ten years and was previously legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association and legal and policy director at Rainbow Migration. Sonia is the Editor of Free Movement.