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Meet G4S, Government’s untouchable friend

The death of an Angolan man on a deportation flight from the UK highlights the increasingly brutal and unaccountable manner in which the country's borders are policed.

The Guardian’s disturbing revelations about the final fatal journey of Angolan Jimmy Mubenga in the care of Home Office contractor G4S have sent a chill through migrant networks. The name resonates.

At G4S-run Tinsley House last October a 10 year old asylum-seeker who had been forcibly arrested and locked up, let go, arrested and locked up again, got predictably distressed and tried to strangle herself.

This year, in March, a report by Baroness Nuala O’Loan into allegations of abuse by G4S and other contractors found, ‘inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies’, and made 22 recommendations for change.

In April, at G4S-run Oakington, a 39 year old Kenyan asylum-seeker called Eliud Nyenze collapsed and died, sparking protests by fellow inmates alleging he had been denied swift medical attention. Within 24 hours of Nyenze’s death, the company was publicising its win of a British Safety Council award for ‘a commitment to improving corporate health and safety’. (The Cambridgeshire coroner ruled earlier this month that there had been no ‘gross failure’ by the authorities, and they acted in a ‘timely and appropriate’ manner.)

Worries about the culture at G4S, a gigantic security company that pays its chief executive £1,656,251 a year are nothing new.

Back in September 2005, a company employee confiscated a coil of washing line from a depressed Angolan asylum-seeker en-route to Yarl’s Wood detention centre with his 13 year old son; they had been arrested in a violent dawn raid on their home. According to an official report, ‘The immigration forms that accompanied the man did not indicate any risk of self-harm and the officers did not detect anything to give cause for concern.’ The next morning, Manuel Bravo was found hanged in a stairwell at Yarl’s Wood. Deputy prisons ombudsman Alison McMurray said: ‘We were satisfied that there were no breaches of process and that there had been no indication that Mr Bravo was thinking of killing himself.’

The G4S name resonates among people caught up in the justice system too.

‘We recognise that when your child arrives at one of our centres they may be bewildered, tired and worried,’ the company reassures families of young people locked up in its three secure training centres (they achieved the ‘Investors in Excellence’ standard in May).

In April a G4S manager was sentenced to a 40 week suspended jail term for assaulting a 13 year old in his care at run-for-profit Rainsbrook secure training centre, near Rugby. Northampton Crown Court heard that 27 year old team leader Neil Hanna had dragged the boy along tarmac and then up a flight of stairs, causing severe abrasions to his buttocks.

Rainsbrook is where 15 year old Gareth Myatt choked to death in 2004 during restraint by three care staff just days after his arrival. Myatt, who was only 4ft 10in tall, had refused to clean the sandwich toaster.

The UK’s first run-for-profit prison and a G4S flagship is HMP Wolds, near Hull. Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers reported in July that: ‘violence reduction arrangements were weak, suicide prevention work was variable . . . adjudications were poorly conducted’, and there were ‘concerns about methadone dispensing’.

Despite its patchy record, G4S roars ahead with taking over even more core public services. In August they landed a three-year contract to provide forensic medical services to five police forces, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire: ‘Under the contract G4S will deploy around 200 medics and office support staff,’ said the company. ‘These highly trained employees will operate within 40 custody suites which process around 150,000 detainees per year.’ G4S provides similar services to seven other police authorities.

The company’s ‘police business unit’ managing director boasted late last year: ‘We have a team of 30 of our guys in one force on a major investigation right now, practically doing all of the roles except that of the senior investigating officer.’

G4S monitors 12000 electronically-tagged offenders, runs hundreds of police and court cells, tackles anti-social behaviour, transports half a million prisoners every year — and aims to become the coalition government’s largest provider of welfare-to-work services.

Under Labour, G4S enjoyed a charmed relationship with government, manifested in the £50,000 a year paid to former Home Secretary John Reid after he had left the Home Office but while he was still a serving MP.

Civil servants, too, seem remarkably loyal to their commercial partners.

The Home Office response to Baroness O’Loan’s findings of ‘inadequate management of the use of force’ was to criticise the people who had brought the company’s abuses to light. Lin Homer, chief executive of the UK Border Agency, accused doctors and lawyers of, ‘seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors’.

The seeming untouchability of G4S is especially worrying given government plans to outsource more rather than less.

In light of Jimmy Mubenga’s horrible death, we ought to be challenging the routine inhumanity of this country’s immigration practices and demanding of the government: How on earth can G4S be fit to run public services in our name? 

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist, founded and co-edits Shine a Light, an investigative project that publishes first at openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism 2010. Orwell Prize nominee 2013 & 2015.


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