Shine A Light

Respect and suicide prevention at the UK Border Agency

The Home Office claims all immigration custody officers now carry anti-ligature knives — after years of urging by HM Inspector of Prisons

Clare Sambrook
14 February 2012

“Staff did not carry anti-ligature knives,” inspectors found on their unannounced visit last October to Waterside Court in Leeds, one of the UK Border Agency’s holding facilities for immigration detainees. What’s more, escort staff at the commercial contractor Reliance Security “had difficulty in locating anti-ligature knives and one van did not have a knife at all”.

In their report on Waterside Court published today, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) urged: “Detainee custody officers (DCOs) should routinely carry anti-ligature knives” — to enable the prompt rescue of detainees who try to hang themselves. It’s hardly rocket science, yet HMIP has had to urge this upon the UK Border Agency repeatedly in numerous reports over years. The Agency's persistent failure to ensure that cut-down knives are carried may say something about its attitude towards the vulnerable people in its care.

Let’s go back to September 2005.

When immigration officers called at his home in Leeds for a ‘pastoral visit’, the man was open and friendly. He let them in, offered them a seat, a cup of coffee, told them of his depression, showed them his medication. The very next day a dozen officers arrived at dawn and broke down his door with a battering ram — (an “absolutely routine pick-up”, they called it). The man and his 13 year old son woke up to find an immigration officer and a police officer in their attic bedroom. They were told to dress and pack, told they’d be flown the following morning to Angola — a country where, the man said, his mother, father and sister had been killed by the authorities.

On the drive to the removal centre — Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire — escort staff from private contractors G4S confiscated a coil of washing line from his bag. At Yarl’s Wood they said he could not keep his medication or the washing line with him, but nobody noted any indication of risk of self-harm in his file. He was found hanged in a Yarl’s Wood stairwell at around 1 AM the next morning. His son was woken up and told the news. The man was Manuel Bravo. He was 35 years old. The circumstances of his death were recorded, with some compassion, by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw in January 2006.

Suicide is an ever-present possibility across the UK’s immigration detention estate. Between January and September last year (according to UK Border Agency figures released under FOI) in just eleven detention facilities there were 127 recorded instances of self-harm requiring medical attention, and 1204 individuals on self-harm or suicide-watch. (These figures do not include detainees held in the Border Agency’s spartan airport lock-ups, or in “Cedars”, the new ‘family-friendly’ detention facility at Pease Pottage in Sussex).

In its September 2006 report on Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, HMIP said: “All detainee custody officers (DCOs) should carry ligature knives and should be aware of the contents of suicide prevention kits.”

And again — “DCOs should carry anti-ligature knives” — in HMIP’s report on Sheffield’s immigration lock-up in July 2009. And again that same year in HMIP’s report on the Dover lockup.
And again and again and again. “Detainee custody officers should routinely carry anti-ligature knives”, said HMIP in three separate reports in March 2011 on the lock-ups at Luton Airport, and Heather Airport Terminals 3 and 4. And yet again in a report on Heathrow Terminal 1 in October 2011.

In two HMIP reports on Glasgow lockups inspected in September 2011, and published in January 2012, HMIP found that: “DCOs did not carry ligature knives.”

Responding privately on 8 November 2011 to HMIP's April inspection of Heathrow Terminal One, the Border Agency said: “Following a review by UKBA, all staff on duty in holding rooms will now carry a ligature knife. To achieve this, Reliance is identifying the number to be purchased and an order will be placed with a supplier approved by UK Border Agency by 1 December.”

Two weeks ago — on 31 January — I called and emailed the Home Office press office asking: “Has Reliance placed the order, how many knives have been ordered, have they arrived/been issued, and what fresh instructions regarding ligature knives has UKBA issued to DCOs?”

Ten days and several reminders later, I got a phone call last Friday from a Home Office press officer: “Anti-ligature knives are in place in all holding rooms and in all vehicles,” he said, asserting that it could therefore be assumed that the order for knives had been made.

But HMIP had specified that knives should be carried by DCOs. Were all custody officers now carrying knives?

He called back a few minutes later: “All holding and custody staff now have them.”

Carried on their person?


Some things are so palpably obvious they should not need saying once, let alone repeating year after year. “All G4S staff should receive training in safeguarding children,” is another recommendation that HMIP has had to repeat. The Inspectorate has called on UKBA repeatedly to abandon the “objectionable and distressing practice” of taking along detainees as ‘reserves’ for deportation flights just in case others can’t be deported. Time and again HMIP has said female officers should be present in a holding room whenever a woman is detained there. Inspectors have urged repeatedly that unrelated men and women should not be held together. UKBA has even needed telling over and over again that: “all toilets should have seats and should be screened so that detainees are afforded complete privacy.” So much for “Home Office values — We treat everyone with respect.”

Last Friday, after talking with the Home Office press officer, I emailed again:

“Just for the avoidance of doubt. . . HO says all holding and custody staff now carry anti ligature knives — That’s correct?

Re my earlier question: what fresh instructions regarding ligature knives has UKBA issued to DCOs?”

The Home Office did not respond.




Some examples of HMIP Recommendations relating to staff carrying anti-ligature knives:

Part one: Recommendations from inspections of short-term holding facilities (PDFs may be downloaded here):

Leeds Waterside Court

14/02/2012 (date of publication)

17/10/2011 (date of start of inspection)

“Staff did not carry anti-ligature knives.”

“[Reliance Security] Escort staff had difficulty in locating anti-ligature knives and one van did not have a knife at all.” 

“All escort vehicles should be equipped with a readily accessible anti-ligature knife.”

“Detainee custody officers (DCOs) should routinely carry anti-ligature knives.” 

Heathrow Airport Terminal 3

06/07/2011 (date of publication)

03/03/2011 (started)

“Detainee custody officers should routinely carry anti-ligature knives. (1.41)”

Heathrow Airport Terminal 4

06/07/2011 (published)

03/03/2011 (started)

“Detainee custody officers should routinely carry anti-ligature knives. (1.40)”

Heathrow Airport Terminal 1

03/10/2011 (published)

11/04/2011 (started)

“DCOs should carry anti-ligature knives.”

Luton Airport

02/02/2011 (published)

18/10/2010 (started)

“DCOs should routinely carry anti-ligature knives.”


03/08/2009 (inspection start)

“All staff should be aware of the location of the anti-ligature knife or carry one with them.

“Staff should carry a personal issue anti-ligature knife at all times.”

Edinburgh Airport

12/04/2010 (started)

“Staff should always carry anti-ligature knives”


03/07/2009 (published)

21/02/2009 (started)

“DCOs should carry anti-ligature knives”

Part two: Some examples of this recommendation from reports on inspections of immigration removal centres (PDFs may be downloaded here):


September 2006 (published)

17/07/2006 (started)

 “We were concerned to find during our night visit that only senior officers carried ligature knives. This meant that there would almost inevitably be delays in cutting down anyone who attempted to hang themselves.”

All detainee custody officers (DCOs) should carry ligature knives and should be aware of the contents of suicide prevention kits.” 

Brook House

12/06/2010 (published)

15/03/2010 (started)

“All staff should carry ligature knives”


02/06/2009 (published)

17/11/2008 (started)

“Detailed guidance on the use of anti-ligature clothing should be included in the policy covering the management of detainees at risk of self-harm and implementation of ACDT procedures. (4.34)”


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