A national disgrace

Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers says that some of the asylum
seekers detained in immigration centres will previously have been
imprisoned elsewhere in “less than humane” conditions. Presumably,
she means in the countries from which they fled, rather than this
one. But she might just as easily have been speaking about the
situation in this country if the new report from her prisons
inspectorate is anything to go by.

The inspectorate’s indictment of the four removal centres and one
reception centre inspected runs to several points central to the
care and welfare of asylum seekers. The mental health needs of
people traumatised by experiences in their home countries are often
overlooked; little more than a third of detainees felt safe and
fewer than that in the two establishments run directly by the
Prison Service. There were concerns in the two centres where
children are also detained for short periods. According to Owers,
the inspectors encountered “a lot of psychological distress” in the
five centres.

All this is of a piece with the harsh treatment meted out to asylum
seekers under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, but
it is scarcely honourable in a country for which compassion and
decency in the care of vulnerable people is supposed to be second
nature. Not surprisingly, the inspectors found that the regimes in
the centres were custodial rather than therapeutic and that is, of
course, regrettable. However, it is unlikely that they would have
found anything else when the culture and ethos of these centres is
determined by the Prison Service.

The Home Office’s response to the complaints of detainees was
predictably dismissive, no different in substance from “They would
say that, wouldn’t they?”. While this attitude to the welfare of
vulnerable people is a national disgrace, the shortcomings of
Prison Service staff are equally worrying. The inspectors have
called for greater cultural awareness among staff, robust child
protection procedures, and training to deal with suicide,
self-harm, bullying and race relations. These ought to have been
there from the beginning and it is a pity that nobody in the Prison
Service appears to have known it. The greater pity is that these
centres were put at the mercy of the Prison Service in the first

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