No More Plasters On The Open Wound Of Indefinite Detention: We Need Full-Scale Surgery

If you lock people up with no end in sight, solely for the administrative convenience of the State, you are going to push people over the edge
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

Last week was marked by the release of another crucial report on the dismal state of detention from the Independent Prison Inspector, Peter Clarke. The focus of this review was Harmondsworth IRC, the largest detention facility in Europe with a capacity for 676 males. Many members of the Freed Voices group have lost years of our lives behind Harmondsworth’s barbed wire, so we were interested to see if this report would be any different from others we‘ve read in the past. Would it be ammunition in the fight against this punitive state violence? Would it add to the momentum for change that has grown in recent weeks with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikes? Or would it serve as another plaster over the open wound of indefinite detention, one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties disasters in the UK today?

As expected, the lack of a time-limit framed most of the Inspector’s evidence. He highlighted how 23 men have been held over a year in Harmondsworth and one man had been locked up for four and half years. Suicide attempts were a routine part of life in Harmondsworth when I was there and that does not seem to have changed. The Inspector reported on cases where detention centre staff responded to extreme examples of distress many hours later. Indefinite detention and self-harm/suicide are directly linked. The mental pressure of the uncertainty of your situation drags people over to a state where ending their lives seems like the best option.

If you lock people up with no end in sight, solely for the administrative convenience of the state, with restricted access to liberty, then you are going to push people over the edge. That is why we need radical change for everybody, not just improvements to the conditions or the safeguards in certain centres that are not ‘performing well’. Both the Inspector’s report and the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers recognise this, as you can see in his recommendations and their demands: there is an urgent need for a time-limit across all detention centres and an alternative approach to a whole system that has become rotten at its core.

The report also reveals how the Home Office openly ignore their own policies. The Inspector highlighted how staff purposely contradicted Rule 35 reports designed to protect vulnerable people. He noted that the Home Office’s own case progression panel recommended the release of five of the twelve cases that the HMIP team looked at, but not one of them were actually freed. His review of the bail services found them to be full of wrongdoings and failings that have not changed since the last HMIP report on Harmondsworth.

And this gets at the problem. Reports like those provided by HMIP are a vital –and credible – resource for unpicking the false narratives the Government weaves around their detention policy. But HMIP’s recommendations are continually disregarded by the Home Office because they can be. There is no legal accountability when it comes to detention, only impunity. In response to a report like this, the Home Office just drag out the same stock lines and carry on, business as usual. And yet, the Home Office’s response this time round was a little different.

This HMIP report does not make for an easy read, especially if you have experienced Harmondsworth first-hand. But it was surprising to hear the Home Office agree: “Elements of this report make for difficult reading and we are committed to a programme of transformation.” Of course, we have heard them make promises of ‘transformation’ and ‘reform’ before, not least after the Shaw Review in 2016. But the fact they are publically acknowledging their own failings tells us two things: firstly, that the state of detention is as bad as it has ever been and secondly, that our collective pressure is working. Even a few years ago, the release of an HMIP report on one of their detention centres would probably not even have received a Home Office response, let alone an apologetic one.

This should serve as a reminder that real reform will only come when the Home Office is forced to change. That is why it has been so great to see so many new voices have joined the fight to end indefinite detention since the Yarl’s Wood protesters began their hunger strike almost a month ago. Many people are new to this struggle, and some are still in the process of understanding some of the complexities around anti-detention campaigning: that it is not an asylum seekers’ issue – it is a civil liberties and human rights issue; that we need fundamental surgery, not plasters; that we need change for all, not only for a particular category of people. But the signs are encouraging. A widespread network of campaigners for detention reform, made up of many different individuals, and communities, and experts-by-experience inside and outside detention, are fighting together.

On Tuesday afternoon there will be Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into bad practices in Yarl’s Wood and Morton Hall detention centres. It is another opportunity to educate the public and decision-makers on the inhumanity, inefficiency and financial wastefulness of the detention estate. Anyone who has been involved in this fight against Government policy knows we will not see results overnight. We will need the same qualities to end indefinite detention as you need to survive the experience itself: determination, perseverance and belief.

*Mishka Pillay is not the author’s real name.

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