Riots at Harmondsworth Detention Centre, UK

Posted by admin on Nov 30th, 2006

Riots at Harmondsworth Detention Centre, UK November 2006. Originally published in Spring 2007 issue of NOII Razorwire, based on various sources.

A large scale disturbance broke out at Harmondsworth Detention Centre, UK after the Inspector of Prisons published a report on Harmondsworth which it described as “Undoubtedly the poorest report” issued on any immigration removal centre to date.

Around 10 pm on 28 November, 2006, detainees started a riot in Wing B after a guard switched off the TV preventing them from watching a newsreport about Harmondsworth Detention Centre. Early reports said that many detainees were beaten; others were locked in their rooms. When No Borders activists managed to speak to some detainees, the latter were soon told by the security guards to “get off the phone”. ‘Specialist officers’ from prisons across the south of England were brought in to help the prison and immigration services ‘contain the situation’.

Around mid-day, communication with detainees was partly restored. In wing A, a detainee said they were still locked in their rooms and the police were beating people in the corridor. They had no water or food and spent the night locked inside despite the fire and smoke. Just before noon, about 50 detainees were seen in the courtyard spelling out the words “HELP”, “SOS” and “FREEDOM” using their bed sheets.

The riots come a day after the chief inspector of prisons strongly criticised the centre’s mismanagement, in what was described as the “poorest report ever” on any UK immigration removal centre. What the chief inspector of prisons said in the report about Harmondsworth Detention Centre:
· It is run with a regime as strict as any high security prison
· It has slipped into ‘a culture wholly at odds with its stated purpose’ since a 2004 riot
· 44% of detainees said they had been victimised by staff; 60% said they felt unsafe
· There is a high use of solitary confinement – 129 times in six months of 2006 – and extensive use of punishment of removal from association

Earlier this year, many detainees in Harmondsworth and other detention centres, mainly in adjacent Colnbrook, went on hunger strike in protest of their inhumane treatment by security guards. A few months before that, in January 2006, there was a large protest by detainees following the death of Bereket Yohannes, a 26-year-old Eritrean who was found hanged in the showers of Harmondsworth. Those deemed by the management to have been the “organisers” of the peaceful protest were punished by being locked in ‘secure cells’ and later transferred to other detention centres. In 2004, there were similar riots sparked by the death of an inmate, causing a temporary closure of the detention centre and the transfer of detainees to other immigration prisons.

Run by Kaylix (former UK Detention Services owned by Sodexho), Harmondsworth is the UK’s biggest detention centre. Situated near Heathrow airport in London (to make deportations easier), it opened in September 2001. The centre can hold up to 550 men, women and children (although it holds only single men at present). According to the latest Home Office figures, there were 470 detainees in Harmondsworth as of 30 September, 2006, 345 of whom were asylum seekers.

The total number of detainees incarcerated in all 10 detention centres was 2,010, of whom 1,455 were asylum seekers, i.e. detained solely under the Immigration Act powers (note the Home Office no longer include persons detained in prison in the statistics). Of the 4,360 (59% of the total) asylum detainees leaving detention, 2,610 (60%) were ‘removed’ from the UK, 1,465 (34%) were granted temporary admission/release and 280 (6%) were bailed.

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