The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report into conditions at Yarl’s Wood (12 August) will come as no surprise to those defending the human rights of people in immigration detention. It shines a light on a system that appears to be incapable of effectively fulfilling its duties under the European Convention of Human Rights. The state has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect detainees from real and immediate risks, particularly considering that those detained are entirely dependent on the authorities to meet their basic needs.
Through privatisation these duties and responsibilities have been devolved to private contractors. In our experience – acting for detainees who have been abused and assaulted and for the bereaved family members of individuals who have died preventable deaths whilst held in detention – this has resulted in the fragmentation of the responsibilities between various providers and contributed to a significant issues in the extent to which staff taking personal responsibility and are held accountable for detainee welfare. We have seen physical violence from staff, gross failures in medical care, shambolic record keeping, limited understanding of mental health issues and poor communication between staff, often leading to devastating consequences such as preventable deaths.
Whilst the private companies running our detention centres may be working to contracts that put considerable limitations on the time and money available to them, this shouldn’t prevent them from bringing in much needed improvements and is certainly no defence against some of the deliberate abuses of power we have seen. Clearly much greater scrutiny is needed by the Home Office which must take its role in ensuring contractors fulfil their duties far more seriously.
Whilst calls to close Yarl’s Wood are understandable, this is not an isolated issue. The problem is far reaching and the need for radical change has been apparent for years. We believe that the impact of the devolution of such public duties to private companies – whose primary duty is to their shareholders and who lack a culture of public service – needs to be properly and urgently assessed. The system is letting down those who are already some of the most vulnerable and voiceless in our society and is failing to meet its basic human rights obligations.
This letter was also part of a news story on the issue, you can read more here