Inside the detention industry
Despite the growth of detention centres for refugees and migrants, they remain shrouded in secrecy. Two insiders speak out.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Over the past quarter-century, in the shadows of British society, the incarceration of refugees and other migrants has boomed. In the early 1990s, the Home Office had just a few hundred cells for holding people who were about to be deported. Now, it has the capacity to lock up thousands of people at any moment, with no time limit, while it tries to deport them. Recent figures show that there are 3,666 “beds” in ten detention centres across Britain.
Occasionally, the inmates’ cries of anguish could be heard in their hunger strikes, riots and suicides. Reports since 2013 that guards at Yarl’s Wood had sexually assaulted female detainees finally helped to break the silence around Britain’s immigration detention centres. Secret filming from inside the Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth centres followed last year, making public the shocking conditions inside. Although the situation for people locked up in these centres has become more visible, little is known about the staff, business executives and civil servants involved. Thousands of people in the UK now make their living out of detention centres – an industry designed to stop other people making a living here.
For years, I encountered the front-line staff on a regular basis, when I was visiting detainees as a journalist and researcher. Apart from small talk with these private security guards during the ritual “pat-down” searches, they remained closed books. Most of what I knew about them came from the detainees, some of whom used to point out the bullies from the “all right” guards in hushed tones when they strolled past us in their corporate uniforms. Home Office staff were distant to the point of being non-existent, making it a mystery as to who was really in charge of this sprawling incarceration system that warehoused so many damaged people for months and even years on end.
Whistle-blowers from within the industry are rare, so it was a pleasant surprise when two senior figures from the civil service and private sector agreed to speak to me anonymously. To find out more about the workforce, I trawled the professional networking website LinkedIn, on which almost 100 detention centre staff have posted their CVs, illuminating their career paths. Why did they do this job, with all the risks and dilemmas it posed? When things went wrong, who was to blame: the government, the companies, or the public that voted for tougher immigration controls? How can we know what border control involves when it plays out behind the walls of a detention centre, outsourced to a private agency?
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For people who are incarcerated in a detention centre, the experience is often etched on their minds. Detention is used when the Home Office thinks that there is a “reasonable prospect” of removing someone from the country, although the time that this takes can range from days to years. The impression it leaves is almost always the same. “Even when I was released, the thought of being detained again was terrifying,” a woman who eventually won the right to stay in the UK told me.
By contrast, the architects of the system can have trouble remembering anything about it at all. For Michael, a retired civil servant closely involved in the decision to build Yarl’s Wood in 2001, launching Britain’s largest-ever network of immigration detention centres was a distant memory. He even found the names of new centres hard to recall. It was just another sweep of the pen that had locked up hundreds, erased from his mind even if the detainees could never forget. For him, immigration was just a short posting, another rung on the career ladder.
He did, however, recall a sense of crisis that engulfed Tony Blair’s government at the start of the new millennium. The number of people claiming asylum in Britain had more than doubled at the end of the 1990s, from around 30,000 to over 76,000 claims a year, and ministers feared that it would double again. “This was scary stuff. All the senior politicians were agitated. It was not a comfortable position,” he said. So under what he described as “enormous pressure”, with the government being “beaten about the head” by anti-immigration newspapers such as the Daily Mail, targets for the number of deportations were set that “proved to be wildly optimistic”. Britain is obliged under international refugee treaties to offer sanctuary to people fleeing persecution but this hostile media atmosphere created a “culture of disbelief”, in which it was easy for Home Office staff and judges to brand asylum seekers as “bogus”, dismiss their cases and put them on a flight out of the UK. Detention was designed to “have them on tap”, so refused asylum seekers from countries regarded as safe could be quickly sent back.
Yarl’s Wood was to be a crucial piece of plumbing in this “tap”. It opened as the largest centre in Europe, with space for nearly 1,000 inmates – men, women and children from across the world. They were not criminals but their asylum cases had been rejected, which seemed to mean that they could be treated as crooks and villains. The high-security environment was controversial but Michael simply saw detention as an “organisational and administrative problem. The security angle wasn’t a major issue – that came later. [Asylum seekers] were coming from countries that were thought not to pose a major threat.” Although many consider the growth of detention as a by-product of the war on terror, Michael said that the decisions were taken in what was almost a honeymoon period, between the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast and 9/11. “There was no expectation of a backlash from the detainees,” Michael recalled. “It was not meant to be a harsh regime.”
For the detainees, it was anything but a honeymoon. That soon became apparent, when a riot and fire destroyed half of Yarl’s Wood. The blaze was a blow to the government but it had unintended consequences. Campsfield House, one of the older detention centres on the outskirts of Oxford, had been scheduled for closure after years of local campaigning but it was kept open instead. What could have been a moment for pause and reflection was lost. The policy ploughed on.
The Home Office refused to bow to the grass-roots anti-detention movement, comprised mainly of left-wing activists, faith groups and refugee associations that had been agitating since the early 1990s, and instead stuffed more asylum seekers into the remaining centres. For Michael, this was logistically tricky but never ethically questionable. “When we had very limited facilities and some people were in Campsfield for a long time, it was inefficient,” Michael explained. “But they were there because they wanted to be there. Every one of them could have left [the country] voluntarily.”
Home Office data from that time lists the main nationalities of asylum applicants as Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis and Sri Lankans: people from countries that were being ravaged by civil war, or ruled by repressive regimes. Could detainees from those countries really have gone back to war zones or dictatorships? Michael clearly thought so. “You shouldn’t call them detainees,” he said. “You should call them volunteers. They were all from countries that would have taken them back.” The mild-mannered retired civil servant sounded strident, insisting that detention meant: “You could deliver justice to the British taxpayer.”
In his eyes, people in detention were “flouting the immigration system ... two-fingering the British nation. Therefore, we will lock you up and put you on a plane until you go.” Michael tried to soften his argument. “I realise it would have been perceived as harsh to some. People have a difficult life and were poor and desperate to get out. But the integrity of the immigration controls depended in part on the asylum system not becoming a back door.”
Even when detainees went on hunger strike, an extreme measure that risked permanent organ damage and eventual death, Michael did not appear flustered. “There was no debate about how to deal with hunger strikes. It was not seen as a political problem. We were doing to these people something that they did not want done to them. So it was a sort of negotiation,” he reasoned.
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As control of the Home Office shifted from Jack Straw to David Blunkett after the 2001 general election, the department took a tougher stance. Detention was no longer just for those awaiting removal. Now it included people who were still waiting for a decision on whether they would be deported or not. Because detention was already justified as being for those who did not deserve to be in the UK at all, it carried a stigma with it – if you were in there, you must have done something wrong. The media were not allowed access to the centres and were mostly uninterested in monitoring the conditions inside. Michael said that the change came from Blunkett and that, for the civil service, it was “not what we would love but it made the process easier. Quicker, cheaper, cleaner.”
Michael stopped himself. “The Home Office is not filled with authoritarians,” he insisted. “We were just told to get on with it. It is not a hard and ruthless place. There is a sense that you were there to guard civil liberties.” Between 2000 and 2007, the detention centre network significantly expanded. Michael’s guardians of civil liberties did little to stop it. By the time Blair left office, Britain had eight privately run immigration detention centres, capable of holding around 2,000 people at any one time.
Perhaps one reason why detention was so forgettable for Michael is that the Home Office actually had very little to do with the day-to-day running of the centres. A characteristic of the detention boom is that most centres were run by private security companies such as Group 4 (now a multinational called G4S), rather than the state. “The private sector was already used in prisons so there was nothing unusual about it. They were also doing prisoner transporting.” There was an anti-trade union side to this. “One of the reasons was to keep costs down and put pressure on the Prison Officers Association. It gave you flexibility to then take on the public sector.”
Speaking to Jason, a former executive from one of these private security companies, gave a sharp contrast to Michael’s selective amnesia. Jason’s memory was precise to the nearest pound about the inner workings of Britain’s detention centres. With considerable pride, Jason recounted exactly how he had won government contracts to run these centres and explained what was in it for the private security industry with almost missionary zeal.
“I want a small state. People fight through life and largely look after themselves,” Jason said as he laid out his vision. “Privatisation will never go away.” Stressing the benefits to the public purse, Jason argued that contractors have to pay out when things go wrong. The infamous 1990 Strangeways prison riots in Manchester cost £85m. “The public paid for that damage but if it was private, it would have been insured,” Jason commented.
The huge sums of money at stake had clearly motivated Jason. “An escape costs between £10,000 and £100,000. That makes you concentrate your mind,” he reflected. Jason is from a generation of private security executives who were once public-sector managers, before the growth of privatisation convinced them that another approach to incarceration was needed. “Most of us who left the prison service in the 1990s were wanting to do it better. Performance measures for privatisations include delivering a better service and a better regime. And there was more control over the Prison Officers Association,” Jason said. Staffing is the biggest cost at any detention centre or prison. With the unions cowed by the early 1990s, guards’ annual pay plummeted 20 per cent, from £15,000 to £12,000.
Two and a half decades later, the government is now reliant on the private sector to run custodial facilities. In 2016, the prison service runs just two detention centres, whereas companies run eight: G4S and Mitie have three each and both Serco and Geo have one. Guarding detainees on deportation flights is done by Tascor, a subsidiary of the outsourcing giant Capita. “It would cost a fortune if the companies pulled out of running the detention centres now,” Jason insisted. “The prison service would have to take it on and no minister would take on board 3,000 pensions.” Although he felt that businesses had done people a favour, the public was ungrateful. He complained, “There is a popular myth of ‘nasty contractors’. A fight in a state-run prison is a riot in a private prison.” Still, Jason knew that privatisation was not perfect and substandard staff could keep their jobs. “Most of the people managing detention centres are rejects from the prison service, second-class managers, who generally play it safe,” he said, bemoaning the refusal of other managers to experiment with even lower staff numbers.
Jason’s passion was to bid for detention centre contracts. “They don’t make a loss,” he explained. “The government have to make it attractive to the companies, to show it is worth it in terms of reputation and cost.” Although the profit margin is not as high as it used to be, it is still a comfortable 4 to 6.5 per cent, on contracts worth over £100m, he said. Even in times of austerity, the government cannot afford to lose its contractors.
Several of the companies that have run British detention centres started out in the US justice system. “A good American prison is not like The Shawshank Redemption,” Jason quipped. “The worst of their jails are worse than our bad ones but their best are better than our good ones. They can run large organisations – a [single] company there has 86,000 beds, which is the same as the prison service has here. And they are big organisations that work in lots of different jurisdictions and countries.”
Private prison companies might benefit from economies of scale but that comes at the cost of democratic accountability. Long-term contracts are typical, often twice an electoral cycle. As a result, new governments are bound by the decisions of their predecessors with expensive cancellation clauses. The board of directors is accountable to its shareholders, not to the electorate, and legally obliged to maximise profit rather than respond to voters’ concerns. Freedom of information laws contain an exemption for commercially sensitive information, so internal company audits of accidents and deaths are rarely disclosed to the public. If this picture of a security company with more power than a government department is troubling, then Jason is uncompromising. “I don’t think privatisation has really started,” he observed, warning that the handful of detention centres that are still run by the state seem likely to be taken over by private companies. It sounds as though democratic accountability will dwindle further, as boardrooms take custody of more people’s lives.
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Michael’s policies and Jason’s business deals did not just shape the lives of the migrants who passed through their custodial facilities. In the past 25 years, the detention industry has employed thousands of British citizens to keep foreigners locked up. Surveying the professional networking website LinkedIn gives some impression of their career paths and patterns emerge as to the guards’ backgrounds.
Many of the people who pass through detention centres have fled war or torture and they often suffer serious mental and physical health problems, yet there is a striking absence of staff with care or community work experience. Ex-custody backgrounds predominate: over a third of detention centre staff I surveyed on LinkedIn used to work in prisons.
A smaller proportion of detention centre staff are ex-armed forces. In some cases, members of staff have served in the same war zones where refugees came from – fighting insurgents one month, detaining asylum seekers the next. A senior custody officer at one detention centre served simultaneously in the Territorial Army, completing tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. A detention manager and army veteran describes himself on LinkedIn as an “expert” with a machine gun, hardly a skill that can be used when dealing with detainees.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on their part, but the comparison raises questions about whether this is an industry that cares for or simply corrals the people it detains. That detainees are kept under lock and key does not mean they are “guilty”, “illegal” or “failed” – many are still waiting for the sloth-like Home Office to decide on their cases and may yet be accepted as genuine refugees.
Even those who have lost their cases are still entitled to a basic standard of care but deportations can be deadly. In 2010, an Angolan man called Jimmy Mubenga died on a British Airways jet when three G4S deportation guards restrained him and stopped him breathing. An inquest jury found that he had been unlawfully killed but the guards were cleared of manslaughter in a controversial criminal trial at the Old Bailey (see Lara Pawson’s report in the spring 2015 New Humanist). Nightclub bouncers are another source of recruits for the detention industry. One detention centre guard claims on LinkedIn that he used to be the head of security at a well-known London strip club.
Many guards appear to live close to the detention centre where they work and previously did low-skilled jobs nearby. They tend to stay on at the detention centre even as the contracts change hands and different firms come and go. Does low turnover mean job satisfaction, or is this the only industry in which they can find work, with its apparent low standards? It is hard to tell from online CVs alone.
Most of the staff are small cogs in a big machine but some play a central role in creating and shaping that machinery. The most striking finding from surveying LinkedIn was how many senior UK staff went to work in Australia, helping to set up that country’s controversial asylum system. At least ten UK detention centre managers were transferred to Australia between 2009 and 2011, when the country escalated its use of detention, partly in response to Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka en masse by boat. Jane Healy, a refugee advocate in Sydney, told me that she has noticed “a high proportion of British ex-military in positions of authority” in Australia’s detention system.
When migration crosses borders, so does the detention industry and its staff, trapping displaced people wherever they turn. People try to paint Australia’s immigration system as more brutal than Britain’s. Sometimes it is. In reality, it is more of a mirror, reflecting what Britain has become. In April, a report emerged that suicide attempts in UK detention centres were at an all-time high.
What began as political panic in London and Canberra was harnessed by private security giants to make a global detention industry, often staffed by ex-prison officers and veterans of the war on terror. It is hard to imagine where else many of these front-line staff would have found work, at least not without extensive retraining, which governments failed to provide. Instead, civil servants were tasked with creating a crude policy framework for mass incarceration, which business executives were all too willing to implement.
No one is uniquely responsible for the growth of detention or its future. Governments and corporations work in tandem, making it hard to hold either accountable. Businesses could scupper the system tomorrow if they pulled out, as governments would be unlikely to shoulder the risk alone. So long as politicians think that detention has public support, it will continue. On International Women’s Day in 2011, barely ten people protested outside Yarl’s Wood. This year, there were 1,000. Public concern might finally be catching up with the industry’s growth rate.
Michael and Jason asked to remain anonymous as a condition of giving interviews to New Humanist, so these are not their real names