The famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 was terminated by its principal investigator Zimbardo after only six days, in response to the extreme way in which the student ‘guards’ inhabited their roles. Those familiar with it will not have been surprised to read the recent findings of the Brook House Public Inquiry.
Abuse at Brook House
Brook House immigration removal centre at Gatwick airport, West Sussex, opened in 2009 and was run until 2020 by the private security company G4S. Originally designed for short stays of no longer than 72 hours, male detainees were routinely held for an average of three months.
In 2010, the chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, found the facility to be “fundamentally unsafe” due to bullying, violence and drug misuse. Although some improvements were subsequently reported, a 2017 Panorama investigation revealed “widespread self-harm and attempted suicides.” Undercover recordings showed officers assaulting and abusing detainees.
Following staff suspensions and an internal inquiry by the Home Office, high court judge, Mrs Justice May ordered a public inquiry which reported in September 2023.
The disturbing report describes prisonisation, the formation of “an ‘us and them’ toxic culture among staff” and, alarmingly, “a wholesale breakdown in the system of safeguards designed to protect vulnerable detained people.” Kate Eves, who chaired the Inquiry, and her team, found credible evidence of 19 incidents of mistreatment within the five-month timeframe covered.
Anna Pincus, Director of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) welcomed the publication of the report, which is the first public inquiry into detention conditions in the UK and in which the group was a core participant. Both the government, and G4S, who held the Home Office contract for running UK detention centres until 2020, appeared reluctant to allow GDWG input. But Pincus stated: “The importance of the role of visitor groups around the UK cannot be underestimated… GDWG visitors maintained an essential humanity… that was met with the threat of restricted access.”
Brook House was built to house people for a few days, but under current legislation, detention can be indefinite.The UK is the only country in Europe where this remains legal. The GDWG has been raising awareness of the negative effects of indefinite detention for many years, helping ‘Experts by Experience’ – those who have endured it – to be heard about the abuse and despair of detainees.
The psychological impact of indefinite detention, particularly in the overcrowded and understaffed conditions found at Brook House, has led to the strong report recommendation that detention should last no more than 28 days.
However, within a month of the Inquiry report publication, a Channel 4 news report highlighted the injustice of UK prisoners who remained under threat of indefinite detention under the now-defunct Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) law. The IPP sentence was scrapped in 2012 after only seven years, with the government claiming it was indefensible, yet the law still holds over those who received the sentence while it was on the statute books. A UN expert on torture has called for a review of this “cruel, inhuman and degrading” sentence in view of the disturbing suicide rate among prisoners who remain indefinitely detained.
Will the Home Office uphold human rights?
Ultimately, the Home Office is responsible for upholding the human rights of all in the UK, but the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, (arguably herself a success of multiculturalism), asserted at a right-wing think tank convention in the USA in September that multiculturalism has “failed”. Then at the Conservative Party conference in October, in a speech that held uncomfortable echoes of Enoch Powell, she stated that there is nothing short of a “hurricane… (bringing) millions more migrants to these shores, uncontrolled and unmanageable.”
Yet the Party conference ended with the Prime Minister’s keynote speech praising the UK as a society in which “immigrants with virtually nothing can rise to be the Prime Minister in three generations”. This astounding disingenuousness lies at the heart of a government, with no answers, who are desperate for populist appeal. Braverman is even calling for the UK to reject the European Court of Human Rights, who have ruled her Rwanda deportation policy as being in contravention of international law. By accepting a door being closed to the human rights of some, we are opening another for the abuse of all.
The Brook House report identified a comprehensive range of failings by the Home Office. Anna Pincus is among those watching and waiting for impact. “We await details of the steps that will be taken in response to each of the important recommendations. Abuses must end and must end now.”
Pincus continued: “Whilst Inquiry recommendations provide hope for the future, there are thousands of people being caused harm in detention today. The Inquiry report says that there is still a long way to go.”