Suicidal asylum-seekers subjected to ‘dangerous’ use of force by guards at detention centre

Suicidal asylum seekers were subject to force by guards who the Home Office allowed to remain on duty despite being “effectively uncertified” in the safe use of restraint techniques, according to internal documents charting conditions inside one of the UK’s most controversial immigration centres.

Experts say the department endangered lives last year by deploying custody staff whose training in the safe use of force had expired, as it detained hundreds of people who had crossed the Channel in a fast-track scheme to remove them.

The cache of 180 文件, obtained through freedom of information laws by the 观察者 and Liberty Investigates, reveal the desperation of those held at Brook House as the Home Office mounted an intensive programme of flights removing people who had arrived in small boats to mainland Europe.

They show that the proportion of detainees subjected to force inside the removal centre near Gatwick airport more than doubled last year.

The documents – which include officers’ written accounts, minutes taken during oversight meetings and complaints filed by detainees and staff – also offer a rare insight into allegations of excessive force by staff.

Serco, the contractor that took over Brook House in May 2020, said it “completely refutes” the allegations, although it did not specify which claims.

The disclosures reveal that after the first lockdown in March 2020, custody officers, who Home Office guidance states should take at least eight hours of training in the safe use of control and restraint techniques every year, were given a “dispensation” allowing them to keep working.

“The danger created by staff being overdue for refreshers is the increased risk of death in custody due to staff loss of knowledge and skill,” said Joanne Caffrey, a former police officer of 24 years and an expert witness in the use of force. In normal circumstances more than one person out of date would represent a “significant institutional failure”, 她补充说.

Between July and December last year, Brook House was the government’s base for Operation Esparto – a schedule of 22 removal flights under a deportation option that allowed the UK to send people to the first EU country they had entered. The process finished on 31 December with the end of the Brexit transition period.

Many detainees are believed to have been survivors of torture and trafficking. Officers used force, including techniques that deliberately cause suffering to gain compliance – called pain-inducing restraint – to prevent self-harm on 62 occasions from July to December. The population of Brook House was about 100 people at any one time.

Self-harm attempts clustered around the flights themselves. The day before a charter to France and Germany on 25 八月, officers intervened four times, including one in which a man was taken to hospital after being found in a pool of blood with slash wounds to his arms, head and chest.

Between August and December, 风暴尤尼斯和风暴富兰克林是由于维护不善或磨损造成的 14 attempts by detainees to end their lives using improvised ligatures. Two tried to suffocate themselves using plastic bags. 在 21 九月, the day before a flight, a man jumped from an upper floor but was caught in safety netting before trying “to push himself through the edge of the netting so he could fall head first to the ground”, officers wrote.

One claimed torture survivor who attempted suicide in detention described Brook House as his “worst nightmare”. 他说: “I thought at least if I kill myself, they’ll be able to learn a lesson – they’ll listen, and they wouldn’t treat other people the way they treated us.”

Serco warned the Home Office during monthly updates that incidents of self-harm linked to the Esparto programme were driving up rates of force. 实际上, the proportion of detainees subjected to force by officers rose from between 7% 和 8% 在 2018 和 2019 到 17% 在 2020, according to monitors.

Yet the 在家办公 didn’t release any detainees through the legal mechanism to identify those at risk of suicide despite guidance permitting this. 反而, when training shortages emerged because of Covid-19, it relied on a loophole quietly introduced to keep officers on duty across the immigration estate after their safe use-of-force training had expired.

Home Office guidance usually requires custody officers to take at least eight hours of refresher training every year in the safe use of control and restraint techniques – some of which can kill if performed incorrectly.

Expired staff “must not work as a [custody officer]” and their certificate is marked “invalid” on a central database, guidance states.

三月 2020, the Home Office created a “dispensation,” allowing out-of-date officers to remain operational until the end of September, taking part in any use-of-force incident unless it was “planned”.

Documents reveal that officers used force on detainees at Brook House during Operation Esparto while “out of ticket” on at least six occasions. On three of these, the officers were on constant watch duties – a shift during which they monitor a detainee at risk of self-harm or suicide. 例如, just after 9pm on 3 八月 2020, an asylum seeker – on constant watch after saying he’d rather die than return to France – began head-butting a cell window. The officer monitoring him – who ticked a box in his form stating he had not received refresher training – stepped in to pull the man back.

The detainee then picked up a kettle and hit himself on the head with it “multiple times”, internal reports state. The kettle was taken from the man’s grip but he wrapped the power cable around his neck to strangle himself. A second officer grabbed the man’s hand. She then used a technique known as the back hammer, which risks dislocation if used incorrectly. She also ticked a box on her use-of-force report stating she had not received refresher training.

When contacted by the 观察者, the Home Office did not say whether it carried out a risk assessment of the move, nor how many staff went on duty while expired.

“Deploying effectively uncertified officers to use force against detainees just to meet Home Office deportation targets is completely unacceptable,” said Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem spokesman for home affairs. “Ministers should come before parliament to address these serious allegations.”

Disclosures included in the documents revealed other concerning allegations. Documents show how a staff member complained that pain-inducing restraint was used on a detainee to force him to accept an ad-hoc medical assessment after a planned use of force. Serco said that this was done in the detainee’s best interests.

The investigation also spoke to a former detainee who complained after officers placed a shield on top of him while he lay, not moving, in bed. Reviewing reports of the incident, Caffrey said force appeared “excessive”, which Serco denies.

The Home Office said it reviews reports filled in by officers justifying the techniques they have used. But minutes taken during an oversight meeting in November 2020 warned the paperwork was being filled out incorrectly. The following month, officials said “accuracy” should be addressed.

Officers were also found to be writing that they reserved the right to later change their reports, raising fears they could try to attempt to dodge accountability. Serco said the issue occurred in the aftermath of its takeover of Brook House and has since been corrected.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We have a range of safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable, including round-the-clock access to healthcare professionals, and contractors are also duty-bound to maintain our safety standards.”

But in internal email exchanges, officials appeared to acknowledge that some of the material was controversial. A reporter’s request to see officers’ use-of-force accounts was sent for ministerial clearance, during which one official wrote to another: “I don’t need to see all the forms but pls do send me any that are likely to be contentious.” The reply came: “There are a lot of them that are.”

Although not addressing specific allegations in a statement, Sarah Burnett, Serco’s operations director of immigration, 说: “We have provided comprehensive evidence to demonstrate the accusations are untrue and there is no evidence to support them, only supposition and incorrect third-party commentary.”

Burnett said that since taking over Brook House, Serco had recruited 170 extra staff and established an “open, inclusive culture” where “officers behave professionally and are properly trained and certified notwithstanding the challenges faced during the Covid pandemic”.

她补充说: “Our officers have a duty of care to the people in the centre, and only use appropriate and proportionate force as a last resort, which in many cases prevents self-harm by detainees and on some occasions has saved lives.”

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