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Another undignified death in detention

Human Rights

In the US, pregnant women are routinely shackled. Imagens-Evangelicas under a Creative Commons Licence

The academic Stephanie Silverman has said of being a scholar of immigration detention that almost every day she learns something that she was not expecting because ‘it seems either too bizarre or shameful to be true.’

I was reminded of her words when the latest detention centre scandal broke last week on 16 January.

The report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) contains more than one shocking revelation. The press picked up in particular on the treatment of an 84-year-old Canadian dementia sufferer, Alois Dvorzac, who died in handcuffs after being refused entry at a British airport a few weeks previously. His advanced age, his condition – and perhaps his Western nationality – have made his harsh, and no doubt deeply bewildered death, into headline news worldwide.

The callous treatment meted out to Dvorzac by guards at Harmondsworth detention centre was shocking. But it was not surprising. Abuses of the vulnerable in detention are not unusual – they are par for the course with excessive border rules that allow governments to put migrants, who have committed no crime, behind bars.

Take the scandal that hit Yarlswood detention centre last October.  Detainees complained that staff there took advantage of women detainees, claiming they would help their immigration case in return for sex. Former detainee Tilia, described this as commonplace behaviour for guards: ‘having women was part of their jobs,’ as she put it. Or the case of the G4S guards, operating in a culture of pervasive racism, who killed Jimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight to Angola.

It’s not just happening in Britain. While I worked on the Jan/Feb detention issue for New Internationalist, numerous scandals broke in Australia. One manager blew the whistle on an offshore detention centre on Manus Island, describing how guards failed to protect detainees in their care from rampant sexual abuse. He added that the facility would not be fit ‘as a dog kennel’ in mainland Australia.

In the US, Human Rights Watch has documented how pregnant women are routinely shackled; female detainees have filed 185 sexual abuse complaints since 2007.

As Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said in his report, some of the ‘most vulnerable people in detention’ had been ‘utterly failed by the system’. The mentally ill – a high proportion given that 85 per cent of detainees are chronically depressed at any time – and victims of torture should be released under Home Office guidelines. But this rule is systematically ignored.

That’s why the Gatwick Detainee Support Group found themselves helping a man with the mental age of 11 who was held in isolation at Brook House detention centre for six weeks. That’s how come the British government chartered a plane to deport a mentally ill Nigerian, Isa Muazu, despite a three-month hunger strike.

Britain claims to operate detention centres that are ‘secure yet humane’. But all the badminton and Diwali celebrations in the world do not alter the fact that depriving migrants of their freedom – indefinitely in the case of Britain, Australia and US – is a deep injustice.

It’s not lost on the guards, who are careful to keep an iron grip on their charges’ discontent. Within these centres – hidden from public view, only accessible to visitors after a biometric vein-scan and not at all to journalists – anthropologists such as Alexandra Hall have documented the pervasive cultures of control. In Border Watch, she describes how whispering, looking out of the window or moving too quickly can all be taken as evidence of defiance. 

Melanie Griffiths, who undertook research with detainees in Campsfield House in Oxfordshire, relates how good behaviour – such as keeping a tidy bedroom – is rewarded by stars. These might be exchanged for privileges such as a private room, tuck shop credits. Perks can be taken away again, if detainees argue, become angry, or refuse a $1.60/ hour job. In the US, detainees’ food is reduced to force compliance.

In these controlling environments detainees lose individuality and quickly become institutionalized. And in this dehumanizing, parallel world, a guard is empowered to decide that a dying, disorientated man is a ‘flight risk’ and must be shackled.

The guards who made the decision to handcuff the dying in the two cases documented by the HMIP report worked for private prison operator GEO. It is they who are being hauled over the coals for this latest outrage. In the same way that G4S guards were splashed over the news when Jimmy Mbenga died. This can only come as a welcome relief to the Home Office. They are ultimately responsible, and yet subcontracting out your dirty work means that you are that little bit less accountable.

The staff of private prison operators can also claim to be one step removed from an unsavoury occupation. As the employees of MITIE were at pains to stress after a sitdown protest against detention in Campsfield House, the demonstrators were not protesting conditions in detention – just detention itself. As if they weren’t complicit, in receipt of millions every year, as the company that detains them. 

While the multiplying state and private players distance themselves, the victims do not change.

And while it continues to be open season on foreigners, abuse is the natural outcome of detention without charge.

Read Hazel Healy's investigation into detention for the Jan/Feb edition of New Internationalist: 'Why are we locking up migrants?'

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