I am Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford, where I am Director of the Centre for Criminology and also Director of Border Criminologies, an international research network that studies the intersections between immigration control and criminal justice. I have been conducting independent, academic research inside Britain’s immigration removal centres (IRCs) since 2009 and have published a number of academic journal articles, book chapters, reports and a research monograph on this topic. Some examples of my work are listed at the end of this document and may be of interest to the committee. I contributed a literature review on mental health in detention to the first Shaw Review and a review of alternatives to detention to the second Shaw Review, along with an account of staff culture.

In this written submission I address the need for a time limit and conditions in detention before describing set of key principles which could assist in devising alternatives to current practice: the right to liberty, due process, access to justice (including the right to challenge immigration decisions in a court or other impartial tribunal), the right to family-life and the principle of parsimony.

Time limit

The uncertain nature of immigration detention in the UK – both in terms of its duration and its purpose – permeates all aspects of the system, affecting daily routines, relationships and outcomes. It is not just detainees who struggle to understand these places, but also staff who at all levels report confusion and some concern or ambivalence about them

The absence of a time limit is painful for detainees. As I reported in the literature review for the Shaw Review, while any period of detention has a deleterious effect on mental health, its impact worsens the longer someone is detained. In my research I often meet people who have just arrived in an IRC; they are initially buoyant, confident that their immigration case will shortly be resolved. As their days behind bars mount up, and as they meet people who have been detained for weeks, months or even years, they start to lose confidence. Women and men become anxious, depressed, confused, angry, despondent. In the survey measuring the quality of life in detention that I have devised and implemented across many IRCs, women and men report difficulties in falling asleep or staying asleep, they lose their appetite, and hope. They struggle to maintain ties with the friends and family members outside and find it hard to plan their time in custody or to make plans for their return, wherever they are headed, as only 50% or so are removed or deported.

Perhaps less evidently, detention staff also struggle with indeterminate detention. It is hard to plan regimes without knowing how long someone will be held and it is difficult to get to know detainees when the duration of their stay in the centre is so uncertain. Officers report that it is hard to understand the purpose and nature of an institution that operates without a time limit. They struggle to articulate their role and often turn to other explanations to try to make sense of their job, emphasising the prison-like nature of the institution in which they work, or the foreign-ness of the detained population. In so doing, staff acknowledge, they build barriers between themselves and detainees. Officers describe leaving their ‘authentic self’ outside the gate, of trying not to think about what happens to those who are deported, and of relying on national stereotypes in their daily interactions at work.

For all of these reasons, I support a time limit on immigration detention. 

Conditions in Detention

Although it is widely accepted (by the Home Office and by the custodial firms), that IRCs should not be run as penal institutions, staff and detainees commonly refer to removal centres as prisons. In this assessment they are influenced by the buildings in which they live and work, their uniforms and keys, as well as by their encounters with institutional terminology and rules. Most IRCs are either former prisons/young offender institutions, or (with the exception of Tinsley House and Yarl’s Wood) have been purpose built to category B prison security standards. Even those which are not as secure as Colnbrook, Brook House or Harmondsworth, such as Tinsley House and Yarl’s Wood, are surrounded by rows of razor wire, iron gates etc.

The built environment matters. Detainees in all centres report feeling stigmatised by and fearful of being held in institutions that look like prisons. According to staff, the penal design restricts the internal regime, as people have to be locked and unlocked to enter different parts of the centre from their housing units, for example, to use the library, learn English or send a fax. The razor wire implies that those within these institutions are dangerous, even though the risks they pose are never clearly spelled out. Externally, it makes it hard to engage the community, while internally it affects relations between staff and detainees, placing them on opposing sides. These secure institutions are also expensive, costing around £100 per night per person.

Conclusion: Alternatives to detention and principles

What might be some alternatives? And how can we ensure that alternatives do not simply expand the current system, which has been found to be lacking? As I reported in the second Shaw Review, in their current form, many alternatives to detention (ATDs) like electronic monitoring do little to disrupt or challenge the use of detention. Indeed, not only do they expand the system and the attendant costs of border control, they may consolidate the practice of confinement for those deemed undeserving or inappropriate for alternative forms of control. It is only when alternatives are developed as part of a prohibition on detention (e.g. for children) that they reduce the use of detention. 

With that in mind, it is worth considering on what principles non-penal forms of immigration control could be based. The rights to liberty, due process, access to justice (including the right to challenge immigration decisions in a court or other impartial tribunal) as well as the right to family-life and the principle of parsimony could shape a new system of community-based hostels for people who had exhausted all their rights of appeal. Non-carceral sites of border control would be small-scale and distributed more evenly across the country, allowing people to stay near their social networks and sources of legal support and advice. They would be run by a range of non-custodial organisations, with staff trained in immigration matters and in welfare. Legal advice would be freely available, along with information about opportunities and organisations in their countries of origin. The community would be welcomed in.

It is worth recalling that the current system of detention is relatively recent; dating in large part to the turn of this century. It is possible, in other words, to devise an alternative system, which would be cheaper to run and that would minimise the collateral damage on those subject to border control, their family and friends, staff, and on the wider community. Border control should not erode the principles of liberty and due process. It should be accountable, minimise harm and be subject to transparent measurement and critique.  

by Professor Mary Bosworth