The number of people self-harming in one of the UK’s immigration detention centres has increased three-fold in four years, an inspection report has revealed, prompting NGOs to highlight an “urgent” need for detention reform.
An unannounced inspection of Morton Hall immigration removal centre in Lincolnonshire, carried out in November, found incidents of self-harm among detainees had nearly tripled since the previous assessment in March 2013 – rising from 30 to 83 in the six months before the inspection, with the number of individuals involved up from 19 to 53.
The report, published on Tuesday by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, found 49 per cent of detainees said they had problems with feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival — a “significant” increase on four years earlier.
One suicide had been recorded since the previous inspection, while during 2016, four detainees had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of tying ligatures before staff intervened, the report found.
The centre, which has capacity to hold 392 adult male detainees and is run by the Prison Service on behalf of the UK Border Agency, had taken “insufficient action to address the surge in self-harm,” according to the report. It stated that monthly data was not sufficiently analysed to identify long-term trends and inform the centre’s priorities, and that there was subsequently “no current strategy to reduce self-harm”.
A new Home Office policy to safeguard adults at risk was “not yet widely understood”, the report continued, with 69 detainees identified as being at risk of harm under the policy, but neither local Home Office nor custodial staff made aware of these cases and no systematic support or monitoring being provided as a result.
In response to the “alarming” findings, Jerome Phelps, director of UK campaign group Detention Action, said it was a sign that the “devastating impact of indefinite detention can no longer be denied” and evidence that Morton Hall detention centre is “increasingly unsafe”.
“The three-fold increase in people self-harming in Morton Hall is an alarming sign of the distress experienced by migrants in detention. The devastating impact of indefinite detention can no longer be denied,” Mr Phelps said.
“Evidence that Morton Hall is becoming increasingly unsafe shows the urgency of the need for detention reform. The Government promised change, but it is moving far too slowly.”
As well as the heightened levels of self-harm and a lack of support for mental health problems in the centre, the inspection observed “clear tension and frustration among many detainees,” which it stated was “absent during the previous inspection”.
The men informed inspectors that this was caused by “uncertainties about their immigration cases and the prison-like environment”, which it stated saw detainees “locked in their rooms at night from 8:30pm onwards” and a “heavy reliance on physical security features, such as fences and razor wire, which made the centre look and feel like a prison.”
It also found that a significant number of detainees had been held for “excessively long periods”, with two men having been detained on three separate occasions for a total of more than three years, and added that many did not have access to legal representation.
Eiri Ohtani, director of Detention Forum, a network of NGOs in the UK challenging immigration detention, told The Independent the report highlighted the "stress and anxiety" detainees are subjected to, and described an "out of sight, out of mind" approach adopted by the Government.
“The inspection report shows an abandoned group of people held under punitive regime behind razor wire who are anxious and stressed due to the uncertainty of indefinite detention. It is happening to them because they hold a ‘wrong’ kind of passport," said Ms Ohtani.
“Despite immigration detention’s colossal human and financial cost, these centres’ remoteness and security measures conveniently let the government continue its ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach, which includes ignoring the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in 2015 and the government-commissioned Shaw Review in 2016.
“More than a year ago (in January 2016) the previous Immigration Minister promised to reform the system. Just last week, a group of frustrated cross-party MPs challenged the Immigration Minister on his inaction and voiced their anger at ‘the gap between stated policy and practice’ of immigration detention.
"When will the Minister sit up and start doing some work on this?”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are pleased that HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has recognised that Morton Hall is generally well run, and that staff relationships with detainees are strong. Detention is an important tool that helps us remove those with no right to be in the country and it is vital that all our facilities are safe and secure.
“Strategies to reduce incidents of violence and self-harm, and to reduce use of psychoactive substances are already in place and will be kept under constant review. Nobody is detained indefinitely and regular reviews of detention are undertaken to ensure that it remains lawful and proportionate.
"There is a clear presumption that vulnerable people should not be detained. An action plan is being implemented in response to the Chief Inspector's recommendations.”