'Turn away and hopefully he's swinging.'
This is the advice undercover reporter Callum Tulley receives from a fellow G4S detainee custody officer at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, in footage aired last week on BBC Panorama, on how to treat someone under 'suicide watch'. Callum and his colleagues are sitting round a table in the staff room and one of the officers, Calvin, has been bragging about the physical violence he inflicted on one such detainee, a vulnerable Egyptian national:
'I obviously went out to make sure no one is looking... bang his head... and as he's banging, on the bounce, I went [hits table with hand] and sort of held it there! [held head down on the table] attention seeking little prick... I don't have any sympathy for any of them.'
One of the stark truths to emerge from last week's exposé is that detention centres not only traumatise detainees, the institutions also brutalise the staff. Violence is normalised. The demonising effect of power and a lack of accountability was demonstrated in the notorious Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. Within six days volunteer student guards were subjecting volunteer student prisoners to such a level of psychological torture that the experiment had to be abandoned. As Callum saw at Brook House, while some officers cannot deal with the violence, and end up resigning, others become 'immune to the pain and suffering that they see, and then some actually turn to the other side and take part in the abuse.'
The banal evil in these centres is chillingly reminiscent of the words of the Auschwitz Commandant, Rudolf Höss, as he awaited trial at Nuremberg. The dominant attitude at the camp was total indifference, Höss told his US army psychiatrist, any other sentiment 'never even occurred to us.'
G4S have a poor track history, which has been well documented in the media since the story of Callum's whistleblowing report emerged. Despite the multinational company's record of incompetence and violence, the Home Office continues to award them the complex and challenging task of running immigration detention centres.
But none of this is news.
Duncan Lewis Solicitors, the law firm at which I work, holds a 'detention contract' with the Legal Aid Agency, which means that we have represented and continue to represent thousands of men and women in these centres. Many of our clients are victims of torture, rape and trafficking, who, under the Home Office's own published policies, are unlawfully detained, sometimes for several years. These clients, across all the UK's detention centres, have been complaining about the kind of abuse shown in the documentary for years.
Only this August, one of our clients in Brook House was compelled to make three complaints against detention staff. First, he told us, he was pushed around by a group of officers for no reason. When he tried to defend himself, he was sent into solitary confinement for 24 hours. Second, he was told by a nurse that she thought he was Muslim and that he 'should not be gay' if that is the case. Third, he was told by an officer, in front of other detainees, that he should change his clothes as he 'looked gay'. This client is seeking asylum on the basis of his sexuality and lives in terror that the other detainees will find out he is gay.
Many of our clients watched the Panorama exposé whilst in detention. One, Vitor Cassombe, a Portuguese national, was detained at Brook House until the day the documentary was aired. I asked him how he felt as he watched the footage of abuse:
'It was upsetting; it could have been me or anyone else that was at Brook House at the time. They [detention officers] don't try to understand what we're going through, because it's not them, they don't care about it. It's good that that guy was actually recording everything, he was the only one who thought it was wrong, even the nurses, they're used to it now, it's too normal for them.'
Vitor is still detained (elsewhere) but he was keen for us to use his full name:
'I have nothing to hide, I'm speaking for everyone, they're the ones in the wrong, they need to be exposed.'
We have seen all this before. In 2015, a Channel 4 undercover report exposed similar staff brutality at the women-only detention centre in Bedfordshire, Yarl's Wood IRC, run by Serco, another multinational public service provider. The exposé was followed with the expected public outrage and finger-wagging. But even two years ago it was appropriate for Yvette Cooper, the then shadow home secretary, to call out the hypocrisy:
'There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry.'
Like Serco, G4S have commenced 'a full investigation'. In the exposé, we see G4S officers refusing to record a use of force or the fact that a detainee had missed a meal ('because he's a prick'). Indeed, a former senior manager at G4S, Nathan Ward, told the BBC that he warned his company's management about staff 'roughness' at Brook House three years ago. How can we have any confidence in the integrity of an in-house investigation by G4S?
Callum Tulley's brave reporting has shed some light on abuse carried out in detention centres, nine G4S officers have been suspended, and Twitter is all a-chirrup with calls for radical detention reform and the imposition of a time-limit (the UK being the only EU country not to have one), but we cannot allow this to be yet another outrage that fades from public consciousness against the backdrop of Brexit and Trump.
So where do we go from here? As Nathan Ward put it on Panorama, '[i]t is too simple just to look at the individuals, even though their actions are deplorable, we need to look at the people who have put these people in place, and allowed them to do what they've done.'
Lord Ramsbotham, the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, is unambiguous in identifying the real culprits: 'I blame the Home Office for allowing G4S to get away with these excesses.'