Commercial contractors routinely belt immigration detainees into restraints so extreme that they are rarely used in prisons.
A woman being deported from the UK to Pakistan was compliant and cooperative throughout the process. Still, the commercial contractor Tascor, working for the UK Home Office, strapped the woman into a waist restraint belt until after the plane had taken off.
One man on suicide watch was strapped into a waist restraint belt even though there was no evidence that he posed a risk to others. Another man, who refused to board a deportation flight, was belted continuously for eight long hours. His wrists swelled. He was examined by a paramedic.
These cases have come to light in two new reports by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. The inspectors also found that waist restraint belts were used six times on three flights to Pakistan, and that approaches to security were “unduly indiscriminate in some respects”.
Government advisers have described the waist belt as “a custom-designed piece of restraint equipment, manufactured from manmade fibres and using plastic snap-locks and Velcro fasteners, designed to be worn around the subject’s waist. Soft cuffs, with plastic snap-lock and Velcro fasteners, are attached to the belt by retractable cords.”
They said: “In the ‘free’ position, although still connected to the belt, the cords are long enough to allow the subject relatively free movement of his arms and hands (for example, for eating). In the ‘retracted’ position, the subject’s hands are pulled in to the front of the belt, where they can be further secured by a snap-lock fastened mesh.”
Inspectors described the waist belt as “almost equivalent … to the most extreme and very rarely used” restraint equipment in prisons.
The belts were introduced by the Home Office as part of a new training program for deportation staff, that was prompted by the unlawful killing of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga by G4S guards in 2010.
The independent panel that advised on the use of the new equipment warned last year that “indiscriminate use of the restraint belt was not justifiable ethically or legally”. It said ministers would have to approve its introduction and it should only be used as “an exceptional measure”.
The coroner who presided over the inquest into Mubenga’s death wrote in a Prevention of Future Deaths Report in July 2013: “It goes without saying that the use of a body-cuff would constitute a significant interference in the bodily integrity of any person to whom it is applied. Dignity and bodily integrity are matters in which close regard must be had in determining what new techniques are to be introduced.”
Yet HM Inspectorate of Prisons has found that the waist restraint belts “were now embedded in practice” and that they risked “being overused”. On three flights to Nigeria and Ghana, the belts were used ten times. Inspectors said that “the justification for several of these uses was not explicit in the records” which they examined. On another flight, the belt was used on eight passengers, even though five of them did not resist being put on the flight. Inspectors said: “while risk factors were used to justify each case, the evidence was sometimes minimal.”
Some authorisation forms for using restraints “did not indicate what specific risk factors might have existed”, and lacked sufficient detail, the inspectors noted. This appears to falls short of the Home Office’s own guidance on the use of these belts, which requires a senior manager to record “whether the restraint was reasonable, proportionate and necessary”.
Two detainees arrived at the airport “in a small van that had been contaminated with their urine”. The men were then kept in the van for several hours, which, according to the inspectors, was “unacceptable treatment”.
The inspectors noted that one man, who was on suicide watch, had lived in Britain for 15 years and was being taken away from his mother who was very ill in hospital here. Another man who was placed in one of the waist restraint belts had been on suicide watch for the previous six months in a series of detention centres.
The investigative organisation Corporate Watch tracked down one detainee who was on the same deportation flight as the man on suicide watch mentioned in the inspectors’ report.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the witness described the scene on board: “A lot of people were tied up, in like a vest on your tummy and arms,” he said. “They tightened up the back so you cannot move and you have pain in your back. You cannot move your hands. They put people on that plane like animals.”
Corporate Watch spoke to one former detainee who claims he was recently restrained by guards in a device which sounds similar to the new belts. He says it blocked his airflow and caused him to pass out. He spoke anonymously, fearing reprisals from the Home Office:
“The guards tried to pin me down with their legs and their knees. After some time they put a belt from under my my armpit down to my abdomen. They started tightening it and I was screaming and screaming ‘This is too tight for me!’”
He went on: “After some time I passed out – there was no air. Someone shouted that they should put me in the recovery position. I was in panic and hyperventilating. They held my head and tried to force a tablet into my mouth. I was choking and gagging for 30 minutes.”
Despite his passing out, the guards continued trying to deport him, the man claimed. “They put me in a wheelchair and moved me into the deportation van. On the way to the airport my condition deteriorated and they called an ambulance on the motorway and I went to hospital for some hours.”
He says he was taken to hospital in handcuffs, despite the new Home Office policy. “I was still handcuffed on the way to hospital. The handcuffs cut the bone of my wrist and I’m having pain in the scrotum and lower back from the assault,” he said.
In the days before one of the deportation flights featured in the inspection reports, volunteers at the Unity Centre in Glasgow spoke to many of the men facing deportation. Among them were fathers leaving behind their partners and young children. The sense of fear and desperation was strong.
One young man, Fred (not his real name), scaled the fence at Harmondsworth detention centre. The inspectors said this caused “considerable delay” in taking people to the airport. Whenever Home Office officials tried to come near him, Fred threatened to jump. A mattress was placed underneath him. The flight left without him, and at the end of the night he came down from the fence.
One week later Corporate Watch visited Fred in detention. He said he was born in Sierra Leone, where his father, an aid worker with the British Red Cross, was killed during the civil war. He had lived in the UK since he was 11 years old with his surviving family. He said all the detainees were talking about not wanting to go on the flight, “but no one was doing anything. So I got up the fence and they couldn't touch me”.
At 24, he had spent the past two years of his life in detention, apart from one brief spell when he was released on tag, and required to walk miles each day to report to the Home Office.
His face was vacant and expressionless. Detention was sucking the life out of him. He was being deported on the basis of police ‘intelligence’, not evidence or convictions, of association with a London gang. Operation Nexus allows the Met Police to bar people from the UK if officers believe someone is not conducive to the public good. Despite Fred’s desperate resistance, he was later deported to Sierra Leone.
Another deportation flight for dozens of Nigerians from London to Lagos, is scheduled for Tuesday 24th November. Campaigners from Movement for Justice rallied outside the Nigerian High Commissioner on Wednesday 18th, and women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre published a statement opposing the flight, saying “we refused to be slaves to the British government”.
HMIP reports published 20 November, 2015:
Detainees under escort: Inspection of escort and removals to Nigeria and Ghana (28 – 29 July 2015) PDF
Detainees under escort: Inspection of escorts and removals to Pakistan (30 June – 1 July 2015) PDF