A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover. While this is an extreme example of what can happen to people when they are locked up indefinitely, it shows what is possible in these circumstances, and shines a light on how the system of immigration detention in the UK is failing those who are most vulnerable to its effects.
Tinsley House is often considered to be one of the better immigration removal centres in the UK. Successive reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons are largely positive, there have been no deaths at the centre, unlike at many others, nor have there been any major disturbances. Many of those we work with who have experienced life in more than one centre tell us Tinsley is better than most, and certainly far better than its bigger sister at Gatwick, Brook House. My experience of visiting there on many occasions over the last seven years is that many of the staff who work there are caring and compassionate, and see their job very much as making the stays of those held there are bearable as possible. And yet incidents like the one that happened with John still occur. The underlying problem, therefore, lies not in the conditions, nor the quality of the staff, nor the regime, though all of these are important and affect how many people deal with their detention. The problem is with a system which says it is OK to lock people up for the convenience of the state, while they make what is often very slow progress in resolving each person’s case, often with seemingly scant regard for the risks that this may pose to each individual, nor any effective way of ensuring that each person is not damaged to the extent that suicide seems like the only way out.
Tinsley House. Photo: Corporate Watch
John was quite clearly struggling in detention when I saw him, and I was very concerned that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had been in Tinsley House for a few weeks, and in another immigration removal centre before that. I remember him telling me how desperate he was to return back to his home country where his wife and children had returned a few months earlier. He told me all he wanted was to go back home, but that there was a conspiracy by the Home Office to keep him locked up forever. He was paranoid, angry and desperate. I found out later that John had suffered from mental health problems since childhood. I had never seen anyone in such a condition before, and was so worried about his mental state that I informed the centre’s medical staff about my concerns, which is something I have only done on a handful of occasions before or since. While some action was taken by the staff at the centre, unfortunately they were unable to prevent the tragedy that unfolded a few days later. At a hearing many years later, the Judge found that negligence on behalf of both individuals at the centre and by the security firm who ran the centre were contributing factors; but he also found that John was so highly disturbed by that stage that nothing they could have done within the centre could have stopped him from doing what he did.
What does this say about our system of detention? Does it say that it is OK to lock up a man who did not even want to stay in the UK for months on end, simply for bureaucratic convenience, and even while his mental health deteriorated so severely and so clearly that when I got the call to say that he had broken his own neck it did not come as a great surprise to me?
My own experience of visiting and supporting hundreds of people in immigration detention over the years is that many, particularly the most vulnerable, of which John was undoubtedly one, are kept locked up for reasons that are very hard to fathom. The usual arguments of risk of absconding and risk of reoffending frequently make little sense when put under the spotlight; people who have committed documents offences or who have been caught working illegally being regarded as a potential risk to the public, men who have never failed to miss a ‘reporting date’ being considered a high risk of absconding. The people who make these decisions have often never met those whose immediate fate they hold in their hands, have little information to go on when making decisions about whether to detain or release, and when it comes to vulnerabilities and the ongoing harm being caused by detention there is often no information at all. The futility of detaining people for no discernible reason, for periods of time that often stretch into months and sometimes into years and on the basis of information that is incomplete at best, is clear to anyone who works with detainees. But not, it seems, to the Home Office, who continue to detain more and more people each year, and this year for the first time broke the 5,000 bed spaces mark, across IRCs, short-term holding facilities and prisons.
There has to be a better way. To treat vulnerable people with seemingly little regard for the damage that is being inflicted upon them is at best immoral, at worst inhuman. I have witnessed torture survivors being seriously re-traumatised by their detention, people so mentally ill that they had little idea of where they were and no idea of what was happening to them, and I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they could see no way out other than suicide.
While of course this is not the fate of the vast majority, that does not mean that we can just assume that they will probably be OK in the end. Assessing someone’s mental health is extremely difficult, and I am by no means a clinician, but you do not have to be a psychiatrist to know if a person sitting opposite you in the visits room is suffering beyond what is reasonable. Our immigration control system cannot be based on compassion alone, but it can be more understanding of those who are most vulnerable, and it can be much better at identifying those who are being unreasonably harmed by being locked up. Better decisions are possible.
'Whisper' by M. Photo: Detention Action
The Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum, a network of 30 NGOs seeking to reform immigration detention in the UK, are calling for the development of a vulnerability assessment tool. This is based on other systems that are currently in use by the Scottish Refugee Council among others, albeit in a non-detention setting. This not only gives a much more rounded approach to vulnerability, bringing in a range of factors not currently considered, but is also able to track how this changes over time. We are calling on the government to investigate this as a matter of urgency. The right tool will benefit everyone. The Home Office will waste far less money detaining those who are most vulnerable, who often end up being released, and who often end up successfully taking them to court for unlawful detention. The benefits for those whose lives risk being shattered by detention need no explanation. Ample evidence is given on the pages of this Unlocking Detention series on openDemocracy.
Today John once again lies in a bed in a care home. Another day passes him by, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. This is the real cost of detention.