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Harmondsworth detention centre inspection report: “worst conditions” ever seen

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has published a report on an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, a facility run by Mitie Care and Custody, concluding that “there is a huge amount of work to be done to get Harmondsworth even up to the mediocre standards we found at our 2017 inspection.”

The inspection took place from 12 to 29 February 2024, before the mass detentions that took place immediately prior to the local elections. The press release says that inspectors found the worst conditions they have ever seen in immigration detention. This included an “unacceptably poor physical environment”, drug use, lengthy waits for rule 35 reports, numerous serious attempts at suicide, and poor care and supervision of those who were at risk of self harming.

There were 454 people detained at the centre at the time of the inspection and the longest continuous period of detention was 753 days. 20 of those people had been assessed at being at the highest level of risk of harm under the Adults at Risk policy, yet some of them continued to be detained for months. At least 60% of detainees were later released, the report noting that Home Office data was lacking but “even the lowest estimates showed that detainees were being held for long and potentially damaging periods of detention, and then simply released.”

The inspection also found that “most egregiously, ligature points identified years previously as a hot spot for suicide attempts had not yet been removed”. It is worth remembering that in May this year that guidance was changed so as to allow more people at risk of harm to be detained in these conditions.

The last full inspection of Harmondsworth took place in 2017 and of the six recommendations on the key concerns raised by inspectors then, none had been addressed at the date of this inspection. This report noted the following concerns:

Priority concerns

  1. There had been numerous serious suicide attempts, but repeated recommendations from the centre’s ‘near miss’ investigations had not been implemented and self-harm prevention work was poor.
  2. There were too few staff and many lacked the experience, confidence and, in some cases, professionalism to manage the poor behaviour that had become embedded across the centre.
  3. Nearly two-thirds of detainees told us they had felt unsafe in the centre and detainee assaults had more than doubled since the last inspection. Despite this, very little resource was allocated to managing safety and security.
  4. Drug use had become an increasingly serious problem and was far more prevalent than in other centres. Measures to prevent drug supply were weak and uncoordinated.
  5. Most detainees lived in dirty, poorly ventilated, badly maintained and, in many cases, dilapidated accommodation.

Key concerns

  1. There was weak identification and management of risks and vulnerability on arrival.
  2. The separation unit was being used as a punitive measure, which was contrary to the Detention Centre Rules and potentially unlawful.
  3. Policies and procedures to minimise the length of detention and protect the most vulnerable were not effective enough. In particular, Rule 35 reports were usually not produced for the many detainees considered to be at high risk of self-harm and many reports and responses were poor.
  4. The centre shop did not provide a suitable range of goods to meet the needs of detainees.
  5. Equality work had been neglected and some detainees with disabilities did not have adequate care or suitable evacuation arrangements.
  6. There was a high level of unmet mental health need, and the psychology provision was greatly under-resourced.
  7. Management, clinical supervision and appraisal for health care staff were consistently poor.
  8. Leaders had done little to promote activities provision and a very large number of sessions were cancelled.
  9. Welfare provision had deteriorated to the point that it was now inadequate to meet detainees’ needs.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote to James Cleverly (at the time the Home Secretary, now the shadow Home Secretary) shortly after the inspection setting out his concerns. No response was received.

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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.


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