‘THIS is the worst thing I have ever seen and I can’t believe it’s going on in Britain’– those are the words of a detainee at The Verne Immigration Removal Centre.
The man is one of a number of sources who have spoken to the Echo about what they claim are the ‘shocking’ conditions at the centre on Portland.
One, who had spent time at HMP Wandsworth – dubbed ‘Britain’s worst jail’– told the Echo he believes conditions at The Verne are ‘worse.’ As reported, HMP The Verne closed as a prison in November 2013 and re-opened as an immigration removal centre three months later.
But the detainee claims the routine is still that of a prison.
“We still have IEP [prison privileges], we wear the same uniform prisoners do, we are treated like prisoners. This isn’t detention, this is prison,” he said.
The man says he believes officers – through no fault of their own – did not get adequate training on the difference between prison and detention.
He says some of those held are suicidal and there is an increasing air of ‘frustration.’ Many do not know how long they will be detained before removal from the country.
Earlier this month a ‘riot’ took place at the site.
Sources claim that an Iraqi man, who has lived in the UK for a number of years and has a wife and children in the country but is now awaiting deportation, climbed on to the roof of the education block.
They say he then put a noose made from a bed sheet around his neck and jumped as a ‘cry for help’; ‘because he has been here nearly a year and he was so frustrated and he just wanted somebody to tell him what is going on with his case.’ The sheet broke and the man was not injured, but up to 150 detainees protested after the incident.
The detainees claim the man was then dragged in to the education block by prison officers.
The incident happened hours before 8pm, when cells are usually locked for the night.
The source said some detainees threw things at the guards.
Many people held in detention centres are asylum seekers whose claims have been refused or are being processed.
Others are non-UK citizens or lawful refugees who have completed prison sentences.
One came to Britain 18 years ago and subsequently had children, who are classed as British.
He says he doesn’t know if he will ever see them again.
He committed a burglary and received a sentence of two years, but he says he has now been detained for two years above the length of time he should have served. Of that, he has been in the Verne for around a year.
In England, if a sentence is between 12 months and four years, the convict serves half that time in prison and then gets automatic conditional release.
But for non-UK citizens it is different.
“If I was British I’d be out,” said the detainee. “I am living in limbo. This is worse than prison. There is no end in sight.”
Yet he says the situation is much worse for failed asylum seekers who have never committed a crime.
“You’ve got 18, 19 year-old kids who have come [to the UK] to ask for help. They’ve never committed a crime in their life and they are put in with people who have done some seriously bad things. These kids don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
If the detainees were British-born criminals, they would know when their sentence will end.
Instead, these people are kept indefinitely under British immigration laws.
“Lots of these people have never been in prison, never done anything wrong. All they did that was wrong was try and come and find a better life,” said the man.
He said bullying at the centre is rife.
“No wonder people get suicidal; people cut themselves,” he added.
He also claims many of the detainees have fleas.
There are around 580 beds at The Verne, reportedly making it the third largest detention centre in Europe.
“This [the situation] needs to come out; someone needs to talk about it,” he said.
“This is the worst thing I have ever seen in my whole life and I can’t believe it’s going on in Britain.
“In the UK, living in a place like this. I can’t believe it.
“I would rather be looking for water in the desert than be in here.”
- THE Verne officially became an IRC in September last year, six months after it began taking detainees.
Earlier this month, HM Inspectorate of Prisons carried out an unannounced inspection of the Verne.
A spokesman said there is no official release date for the inspection report at present but it will be ‘sometime this year.’
"I WOULD hate to see any member of staff being injured but the way it's going, there's certainly a possibility of that"- Prison Officers Association representative for the area John Hancock says he 'absolutely agrees' that staff have not been given enough training and that staffing levels are inadequate at The Verne.
He says when the announcement was made that the prison would be converted in to an immigration removal centre, staff were told they would get 'extensive training.'
However, due to staff shortages, they were deployed to other prisons in the interim and the training never happened.
Mr Hancock also said that-
- Young people who have committed no crimes are mixed in with people who would ordinarily be in a Category B or C prison.
"There are a lot of guys in there who would never make an open prison, but they are in the Verne because they are going to be removed. But they don't meet the requirements for open prison [but] they are being put in with youngsters who have never committed any crime."
- Staffing levels are not sufficient to support 18-21 year-olds in the Verne
- There are staffing issues at Tascor, the company which transfers inmates to removal centres closer to airports ready for deportation, meaning many don't make their flights. At the time of going to press, the Home Office was unable to provide a comment about this.
Mr Hancock said the way detainees are treated by the system is 'totally diabolical.'
Ministry of Justice responds
EARLIER this month the All-Parliamentary Group Use of Immigration Detention in the UK report was published.
It said that the Home Office is failing to follow its own guidance in using detention sparingly and for the shortest possible period. Instead, the ‘enforcement-focused culture’ of the Home Office leads it to detain ‘far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long.'
The report says there should be a maximum of 28 days that immigrants can be held and that detention should only be used to effect removal.
The Echo has put the claims made in this article by our sources to the Home Office.
It said they would need to be referred to the Ministry of Justice which is responsible for running The Verne.
But the Ministry of Justice only responded about the claims made about 'inadequate' staffing levels.
It said there was always enough staff to run the establishments and said it was 'totally untrue' that staff had not gone on training before the Verne was converted to an IRC.
A spokesman said: "Before taking on an operational position all staff receive the required levels of training to ensure they have the right skills to properly carry out their role.
"We will always have enough staff to run safe and secure establishments. We do not underestimate the hard work and challenges that staff face on a daily basis and their safety and security is of paramount importance."