As evidence is revealed of vulnerable detainees being imprisoned in overcrowded and flooded cells while fires burned, Liberty last Monday called on the Home Office to act.
The civil rights group requested the Home Secretary, John Reid, to order a public inquiry into the serious disturbance that took place at Harmondsworth detention centre in west London last November and into the treatment that led detainees to desperate measures.
Liberty Legal Officer, Alex Gask said: ‘It is clear that abuses at Harmondsworth detention centre sparked the disorder in November, abuses which escalated during the disturbance itself.
‘These men deserve a public inquiry into the ill-treatment they faced; anything less could result in legal action.’
Should the Home Secretary refuse, Liberty intends to seek a judicial review of his decision on behalf of seven detainees it is representing.
Liberty said this would be ‘an unprecedented move that would see Britain’s immigration system placed under scrutiny in the courts’.
Liberty stressed that it ‘believes that hunger strikes, destructive behaviour and self-harm are now endemic in Britain’s biggest detention centres as detainees become increasingly desperate about living in what they claim are deteriorating conditions’.
The November disturbance at Harmondsworth was the second such incident in less than two and a half years.
At Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, more than 100 women are refusing to eat, and there have been recent reports of major disturbances at Lindholme, South Yorkshire, and at Colnbrook in Middlesex.
Announcing its request to the Home Office, Liberty published ‘Excerpts from Witness Statements – Evidence for Article 3 claim’
‘1) Key Points:
‘A) General Inhuman and Degrading Treatment at Harmondsworth
• Officers were frequently abusive to the detainees and humiliated them intentionally. They would use racist slurs and beat detainees without provocation.
• There was no effective complaints procedure. One detainee (K) suggests that each time a complaint was made a warning would be given to the complaining detainee. Three warnings resulted in being sent to the “block” or solitary confinement.
• Punishments were given arbitrarily. The guards would take detainees to solitary confinement for responding to verbal abuse. On the way to secure (accommodation) they would often be beaten severely. One detainee (N) describes seeing blood in the corridors after such beatings.
• Guards would deprive detainees of their correspondence, including with solicitors.
• Conditions were made unnecessarily difficult. Detainees were not provided with nail clippers which they found unhygienic. Very few were able to attend education classes because of very limited space.
• These conditions resulted in severe psychological damage to the detainees. Detainees would commit acts of self harm and there were several suicide attempts.
• Guards revealed the fact that one detainee (K) was a homosexual and HIV positive to other detainees which led to that detainee suffering physical abuse and depression.
• Guards bullied the detainees including one detainee (PS) who suffered from the medical condition Alopecia. The detainee was forced to remove his hat more than once and by several officers and was then taunted about his condition.
• A detainee (Hakeem Mabinuotori) who suffered from back pain was left for many hours without treatment and received abuse from the guards when he expressed his discomfort. When he was finally taken to the on-site clinic this was in a wheel chair rather than on a stretcher which caused additional pain. Furthermore there was no doctor in the clinic to treat him.
‘B) Mistreatment following the Disturbance on 28 November 2006
• Detainees were forced to go without food and water, some for over 40 hours.
• Detainees were locked in severely overcrowded cells in squalid and dangerous conditions – some for 24 hours.
• There are reports of detainees being locked in showers and toilets during the disturbance.
• Many cells were flooded and there was a smell of gas in many areas, loose electrical cables made the situation even more dangerous.
• The detainees’ fears were compounded by the fact that some of the cells were in total darkness.
• Detainees were forced to urinate on the floor of their cells and this mixed with the water which was flowing round the room and got inside their shoes.
• During this time guards were verbally abusive to the detainees and refused them permission to use the toilets on the landing.
• One detainee with diabetes (N) had no access to insulin throughout the disturbance, despite repeated requests and only received it when he had arrived at the new detention centre. During this time his blood sugar levels had risen to levels that can cause permanent eye and liver damage.
• Detainees were not allowed to take their possessions with them on leaving Harmondsworth.
• This experience inevitably had a terrible psychological effect and left at least one detainee severely traumatised (K).
• After being moved from Harmondsworth the mistreatment continued. One detainee (“V”) was only allowed out of his cell for 10 – 15 minutes each day and was not permitted to call his family. Another (“N”) was only released from his cell for 5 minutes each day.
‘2) Relevant Excerpts:
‘Paras 18 – 25: My room was on the ground floor and was badly flooded and so I went to my friend’s room (room 205) on the second floor. Four other people were in the room with me because we were all trying to find a relatively drier place to rest for the night. There was water on the floors of the rooms on the second floor but they were less flooded than the rooms on the ground floor.
‘I was very tired by this time and I managed to get a few hours sleep during the night. There were two beds in the room and I found space on one of them to rest. When we first went into the room, two detainees spread a duvet out on the floor to try to rest on top of it.
‘However, more water came into the room so that the water level rose to about three inches deep. After that happened, it was impossible for them to lie on the floor.
‘The water was so high that our shoes were completely soaked if we stood up in the cell.
‘The five of us in the room therefore shared the two beds by sitting up. The room was only a two-man cell, measuring approximately 8 feet by 10 feet, so it was very cramped inside.
‘Between the time I fell asleep, which was around 02.30 or 03.00, and the time I woke up at around 06.00, officers had come and locked us in the room. I was terrified to wake up and find myself locked in the room and unable to get out.
‘There were five of us locked in the room and we suffered very badly under the conditions in there. The air conditioning and ventilation system had broken down so there was no fresh air at all in the room.
‘Because the windows in the rooms were always locked, we usually relied on the ventilation system to get air in and out of the room. The room was like a sealed can because there was no airflow into or out of the room.
‘The room became very hot and we felt we could not breathe. To make things worse, there was a smell of gas but I did not know where it was coming from. It felt very dangerous in there because there might have been an explosion if the gas was ignited.
‘There was only a little bit of light coming into the room because the electricity and lighting had been damaged. Although it was daylight when we were locked in, it was still fairly dark in the room because there were eight metal bars placed about four inches apart across the window. Only a limited amount of light was able to get into our cell. This made the conditions in the room more unpleasant by the fact we could not see clearly.
‘There was also a lot of smoke in the room. I assume this came from the fires set off around the building, although I am not sure exactly where it came from.
‘We could not go to the toilet during the time we were locked up and we therefore had to urinate on the floor in front of each other. Our urine mixed with the water on the floor so we were forced to walk in it and our shoes and feet were soaked through.’