Post by Mary Bosworth, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This post first appeared on the LSE blog on 4 August 2014. Mary's new book, Inside Immigration Detention (Oxford University Press, 2014), will be released in September.  

As the British government holds its first public inquiry into the conditions and nature of immigration detention, it is a good time to take stock of this form of custody. These institutions are volatile and contested sites. They are also places about which we know very little. What is their goal? How are they justified? Who is detained and why? What is detention like?

Although the British government has had the power to incarcerate foreign nationals since the passage of the Aliens Act in 1905, they used this power sparingly until the 1990s other than in times of war. For many years, asylum seekers, foreign ex-offenders, and those without immigration status were kept in prison, or for very short periods of time in holding rooms at ports and airports. In 1970 the British government opened the first purpose built institution to hold people for immigration matters, the Harmondsworth Immigration Detention Unit, on the site of today’s high-security facility, IRC Colnbrook. From that point first slowly and then, under the premiership of Tony Blair, more rapidly, they began to establish the national system we have today. All centres are run, under contract and on behalf of the Home Office, by one of a series of private companies or by HM Prison Service... Click here to continue reading.