Immigrants should not be in jail, says prisons watchdog

The United Kingdom Border Agency should be stripped of its responsibility for detaining asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.

Dame Anne Owers, who for nine years has been the prisons watchdog, today warns of the conflict between the forced removal of failed asylum seekers and the proper care of detainees held in immigration custody.

Her call for a separation of roles comes after growing concern about the alleged brutal treatment of asylum seekers held in immigration removal centres before their return to their countries of origin. This week Dame Anne found that the Government's newest immigration removal centre, Brook House, which opened last year, was "fundamentally unsafe", and that both detainees and staff were victims of high levels of violence.

In an interview with The Independent, Dame Anne says that too many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are being locked up in detention centres. But her greatest concern is for refugee children.

She said: "One of the issues our inspections have continually raised is the detention of children. It's very welcome that there is going to be a review but that is overdue. While it is true that the conditions and the support services for children in detention have improved, detention of itself is damaging for children."

Dame Anne said that over the past nine years the immigration estate has become more difficult to run and relations between detainees and staff have grown worse. But she said there had been improvements in the training of guards who enforce removals, and the preparation of detainees for release.

"We can go to some immigration centres which are run very well, but [at] others, like Brook House, Tinsley House and Colnbrook, the picture is much more troubling." She said many of these institutions were more like prisons than immigration removal centres.

"We are worried about the new buildings which are designed like a high-security prison. The problem is if you build places like that and you have inexperienced staff, [or] don't have enough staff, then you are designing places to fail."

There were also concerns about the turnover and experience of staff working in immigration removal centres.

"When staff are new to working in custody there is a risk that they will lack confidence and will resort too readily to force. At Brook House there was the use of shields." She said that the problem was exacerbated by the fact that more asylum seekers were being detained for longer periods.

It now Dame Anne's conclusion that the Government should hand the job of caring for locked-up asylum seekers to another agency.

"The job [of UKBA senior management] is removal, and detention is incidental to removal. So I don't think there is always an appreciation [of] what is happening on the ground about detention. So I float the idea of whether the process of looking after people who are in detention wouldn't be better separated from the perfectly proper role of UKBA as an organisation that has to enforce immigration controls.

"Immigration detention should not to be the same as prison. When we are looking at prison, the role of the Prison Service is to try to hold people safely in detention – that is not the core role of the UK Border Agency."

Speaking ahead of her lecture to the Prison Reform Trust in London last night, Dame Anne blamed tensions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for the prison population crisis.

She said: "I think that the Treasury wanted to cap the numbers of prisoners at 80,000 for financial reasons. Meanwhile in another part of Government things were happening that made the prison population rise. And that was one of the reasons we got into the prison crisis of 2007 where there wasn't the capacity to deal with the inevitable result of legislation.

Since taking on the job, Dame Anne has produced several reports on the conditions for asylum-seekers in detention centres. In April 2003, she found that Campsfield House near Oxford was overcrowded and “not a place of safety”.

In December last year, she said Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre near Gatwick was “wholly unacceptable” for women and children. And in March this year, she reported that force had been used against children at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire to separate them from their families in order to carry out deportations.

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