What Strangeways can teach us about immigration detention centres today

Harmondsworth immigration detention centre has seen hunger strikes in recent weeks. Tim Ockenden/PA

A series of hunger strikes and disturbances has swept across immigration detention centres in the past few weeks. In Harmondsworth, Yarl’s Wood, Dungavel and the Verne, women and men have refused to eat, congregated outside instead of returning to their rooms, alleged maltreatment, and complained of inadequate living conditions. Immigration removal centres, they claim, are dirty, dangerous and unjust.

Immigration centres are, of course, not the same as prisons. But as we mark 25 years since the Strangeways riots and the reforms they prompted, it is worth reflecting on what causes unrest in immigration centres and how it is dealt with. In the past, investigations have focused on making these centres more secure rather than more comfortable but there is hope for a more comprehensive rethink.

A history of unrest

The latest hunger strikes are not the first time organised dissent has broken out in immigration centres. Indeed, rather unlike mainstream prisons, detainees sometimes escape and disorder is fairly commonplace. Usually only some of the population are involved and the methods of resistance are peaceful.

In 2002, though, a group of men burned a whole wing of Yarl’s Wood to the ground, just weeks after it opened. In 2004 and again in 2006, collective actions also destroyed large sections of Harmondsworth. The following year a group of men in Campsfield House rioted in response to the removal of an Algerian man. They burned down parts of the building in the process. And in 2014 a man lit a fire in his room at the same institution, severely damaging a new wing. In between, Morton Hall, the Verne, Dungavel and most others have witnessed various forms of unrest.

The 2002 fire at Yarl’s Wood. Andrew Parsons/PA

Unlike the riot in Strangeways, such disturbances are quickly forgotten. There have been some critical reports but the government has been reluctant to look into the issue comprehensively. It investigated the 2006 and 2007 events, almost entirely in terms of their “strategic implications” and the the report that was ultimately produced seemed to focus more on the security implications of the incidents than the conditions under which detainees were being held.

A radical rethink

In contrast, the report that was produced in 1990 in the wake of the Strangeways riot sought out a range of views about what had gone wrong in prisons around the country.

After five months Harry Woolf, the report’s author, had accumulated a mass of information, out of which he concluded that there was a complex ethical problem in the nation’s prisons. The prison service, he pointed out, had failed to secure order or justice. It was not just that living conditions were poor across the overcrowded estate but that prisoners felt they had no recourse to express their concerns. The system had lost legitimacy.

Most disturbances in immigration centres are not caused by living conditions. Likewise, detainees are unlikely to be motivated to complain about their regime, for the simple fact that daily life in these centres is so limited.

These centres are not designed for long-term residency, despite the open-ended nature of many people’s confinement. They are holding zones before deportation or at least removal. The main concern for women and men within them is their immigration case. So even if the conditions within these centres were exemplary, their concerns would remain.

Thinking deeply

Detention centres are not governed by the same logic as prisons. They are not designed to prepare their inhabitants for rehabilitation or release, nor to alter their behaviour. Their purpose is administrative convenience. Nonetheless, in their actions, detainees remind us that the feeling is the same: punitive.

The Woolf report profoundly changed prisons and our understanding of them. In the years that followed, basic living conditions and daily regimes improved, and the most egregious practices like slopping out came to an end – even if other problems persisted.

The detention estate is currently the subject of a wide-ranging review into welfare. Headed by Stephen Shaw, the former prison ombudsman, it seeks to identify problems and find a means of addressing them.

Just a few weeks ago, before the recent wave of protests began, the all party parliamentary groups on refugees and migration published a report on the use of immigration detention in the UK. This called for maximum detentions of 28 days and shift towards more relaxed conditions.

Perhaps together, these official studies will have the same effect as Woolf had after Strangeways. They have the potential to draw into question current practice and start imagining an alternative.