'Toxic culture' and detainees mistreated in ‘prison-like’ conditions, Brook House Inquiry finds

Brook House immigration removal centre. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Detainees were mistreated in “prison-like” conditions at an immigration centre where staff made dehumanising comments and were quick to use force, an inquiry has found.

Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) was “not sufficiently decent, secure or caring for detained people or its staff”, a report into abuse suffered there in 2017 concluded.

A total of 19 incidents of mistreatment took place at the detention centre near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex between April and August that year.

Inquiry chairwoman Kate Eves said: "Under the Home Office and its contractor, G4S, Brook House was not sufficiently decent, secure or caring for detained people or its staff at the time these events took place.

"An environment flourished in which unacceptable treatment became more likely"

She said her 33 recommendations must be implemented “to ensure that other detained people do not suffer in the same way as those at Brook House did”.

Her recommendations include:

  • A time limit on detention - new legislation that allows a maximum 28-day limit during which an individual can be detained in an immigration removal centre.

  • A limit on cell sharing - to two per cell, to prevent overcrowding.

  • Ensuring computer and internet access for seven hours a day, seven days a week - without blocking websites of personal email accounts or those that contain the provision of legal advice.

  • Guidance and training for staff on the use of force on detainees.

  • Mandatory training for staff on mental health and race and diversity.

During the hearings, the Home Office's director of immigration detention apologised to detainees involved at Brook House. Credit: ITV Meridian

The inquiry was launched in 2019, two years after BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast undercover footage showing alleged abuse towards detainees.

Ten members of staff were dismissed or resigned in the wake of the broadcast.

No prosecutions were brought after a police investigation but two former detainees successfully argued a full independent investigation was needed.

G4S has since stopped running Brook House, with outsourcing giant Serco having taken over.

The report, published on Tuesday and running to three volumes totalling around 800 pages, detailed a “toxic” culture amongst G4S staff who had been running the centre at the time.

Ms Eves said she “rejected the narrative portrayed by both the Home Office and G4S in their evidence that the events at Brook House were primarily the result of a small minority of G4S staff”, saying such a narrative “seeks to distance both organisations from their responsibility for the prevailing culture at the time”.

Ms Eves recommended a 28-day maximum stay for those at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

A lawyer representing people who were held at Brook House had told the inquiry it should be shut down, but Ms Eves stopped short of calling for it to close.

Among her recommendations, the chairwoman said the government should introduce a time limit of 28 days maximum for a person to be held at an IRC.

She described the environment at Brook House as “harsh” and “prison-like”, saying it was “entirely unsuitable for detaining people for anything other than a short period of time”.

The report noted that in July 2017, the average stay at the centre was 44 days, but five people had been there for between one and two years.

Ms Eves referred to one Home Office manager who had told the inquiry that if someone spent more than 24 hours at Brook House “you’re going to develop mental health issues”, adding “it’s not a nice place to be”.

There was “significant understaffing” and the senior management team was “dysfunctional”, the report found.

It was “common” for staff to use “racist and derogatory language” when speaking about detainees and “unacceptable, often abusive behaviour was dismissed as banter”, Ms Eves said.

Evidence given during the investigation into claims about what went on at Brook House was described as 'harrowing'. Credit: ITV Meridian

Ms Eves continued: "Many of the safeguards designed to protect vulnerable detained people failed at Brook House during the relevant period and I remain concerned about how those safeguards are operating currently."

Evidence of the use of dehumanising language included repeated use of the mocking phrase “if he dies, he dies”, Ms Eves said, while there was “considerable evidence” that staff were “too quick to employ force” and that it was at times used to provoke or punish.

Among the 19 incidents of mistreatment which involved 16 men, the report cited a “terrifying” moment – which had been part of the Panorama programme – where a detention custody officer put his hands around a detainee’s neck and called him a “f**king piece of shit”, adding: “I’m going to put you to f**king sleep”.

Other instances included men being forcibly moved when naked or near-naked, physical violence and staff who initially “stood and looked” at a detainee who had been found unconscious having attempted to self-harm “without trying to help him”.

The chairwoman recommended that “new comprehensive and mandatory rules for how force is used in IRCs is urgently needed”.

Ms Eves called on the Home Office to pay “more than mere lip service” to her findings, noting a “dark thread” running throughout her report of a failure to act on previous recommendations.

She warned that, with the government having made clear its intention to expand the use of immigration detention, “any expansion or other change should be considered in the context of learning lessons from past failures”.

Concluding her report, she added: “Many of the safeguards designed to protect vulnerable detained people failed at Brook House during the relevant period and I remain concerned about how those safeguards are operating currently.”

Ms Eves has requested that the government respond to her recommendations within six months.

A G4S spokesperson said they were “appalled when, in 2017, a number of former employees acted in a way that was contrary to our values, policies and their training, and for this we are sorry”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The abuse that took place at Brook House in 2017 was unacceptable.

“The government has made significant improvements since then to uphold the welfare and dignity of those detained including strengthening safeguards, promoting a culture of transparency and improving the oversight of contractors’ performance.

“We remain committed to ensuring safety and security in all Immigration Removal Centres and to learn lessons from Brook House to ensure these events never happen again.

“We thank the Chair and Inquiry team for their report and are carefully considering every recommendation.”

Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister, responding to the inquiry into Brook House Detention Centre, said:

"This report epitomises the Conservative Government's failure over 13 years to deliver the well-managed and functioning immigration system that our country deserves. Some of the accounts provided to the inquiry are utterly harrowing; they illustrate the impact of a government that’s delivered neither control nor compassion.

"Immigration detention and removal centres are a vital part of our border security. That is why proper standards must be enforced, and private contractors held to account."

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