BROOK House detention centre sits on Gatwick’s southern perimeter.
There has been a spate of dramatic incidents in recent weeks, a detainee is said to have cut his throat, another set fire to his bedroom and another fell from a second floor balcony and suffered head injuries.
The centre houses more than 400 adult male detainees awaiting deportation, with some – who have spoken to The Argus – saying the problems have left them on edge, describing the atmosphere as “bleak” and “hopeless”.
It is half a mile from fellow detention centre Tinsley House and the centre is a high-security facility operated by private security firm G4S on behalf of the UK Visas and Immigration.
The detainees spoke to The Argus as an announcement was made by home secretary Theresa May that the Government will be launching an independent review of policies and procedures regarding welfare in immigration centres.
At the end of January, an inmate at Brook House, believed to be an Algerian detainee aged in his early 20s, set fire to his own bedroom in the centre’s E Wing.
Accounts from within the centre tell how the wing was full of smoke as staff members emptied the bedrooms.
One man told The Argus: “A detainee in the wing started a fire and the whole place was pitch black and full of thick electrical smelling smoke.
“I heard shouting and there was a member of staff running up and down the corridor opening the doors.
“We could see everything was dark and at first I was not sure what had happened.
“There was a strong smell and I used my jacket to cover my nose from the smoke.
“But this is not even the worst incident, last week there was a guy who jumped off one of the landings and cut his head open.
“I cannot count the amount of times I have seen someone try to hurt themselves. I saw one guy try to hang himself while officers tried to stop him.
“The Government is not doing enough to protect the detainees – it feels like detainees’ lives are just business to them.”
A detainee in the centre’s D Wing is said to have come out of his room carrying a razor and sliced his own throat in front of members of staff.
The Argus understand the man survived the incident.
Another detainee at the centre described the same incidents: “In the last couple of weeks we have had quite a few major incidents. One detainee was on D Wing when he went up on to the balcony, stood facing backwards and fell off, splitting his head open.
“Then before that about four or five days earlier a detainee on another ward came out onto a wing and cut his throat open. The atmosphere is very bleak at the moment and everyone is on edge after what has happened.
“When you have a string of incidents like this you do not know where the next one is going to come from – it feels like it is getting worse.”
Detainees within Brook House reported that self harm feels like “normality” and accused governing bodies of not taking it seriously.
Another detainee said: “Some detainees do not understand why they are here – they are only young, they are scared and some come straight from social services.
“They see lots of awful things with people self harming and people feeling like they want to kill themselves – it is horrible for them and it can feel pretty hopeless.”
In the centre’s last report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) self harm was highlighted as one of the centre’s issues due to “frustration” and “despair” among the detainees.
The report highlights “those at risk of self-harm were well managed but a care suite was much needed”.
Levels of violence were indicated as low and on a whole the centre remained a “safe” and “respectful” place.
The Argus understands from a source that there has been a “substantial” reduction in the number of self-harm cases at the centre in 2014.
A G4S spokesman said: “The action we’ve taken since the last report to further improve the way we care for those at risk of self harm is working.”
The Government is seeking to investigate if improvements can be made to safeguard the wellbeing of detainees.
Stephen Shaw, CBE, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, will be leading the home office review. He will inspect the centres and scrutinise home office policies and operational practices.
Announcing the new review, Home Secretary Theresa May said: “Immigration detention is a vital tool in helping ensure those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country.
“But I take the welfare of those in the Government’s care very seriously and I want to ensure the health and wellbeing of all detainees, some of whom may be vulnerable, is safeguarded at all times.
“That is why I have asked Stephen Shaw, who has a wealth of relevant experience, to undertake a comprehensive review of our immigration detention estate.
“We are building an immigration system that is fair to British nationals and legitimate migrants, but we must also ensure it treats those we are removing from the UK with an equal sense of fairness.”
Nic Eadie, director of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, based in Crawley, said while he “welcomed” the work the Government was doing the charity is worried it will “not go far enough”.
He said: “There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why these incidents have happened now as far as we can tell.
“It could be a case of one incident setting off another, as certainly the atmosphere in the centre will be much more tense after this series of incidents, but for us it comes down to the frustration that so many people who are detained feel about their continued confinement in a building that very much resembles a prison, with little idea of how long they may be there for.
“It’s very difficult to generalise. However, certainly many of the detainees we speak to tell us that they are naturally upset and worried about all of the incidents that have happened in the last week or so, so there is a level of tension at the centre for many held there.
“We would argue that the Home Office needs to be much better at making decisions about when it is not appropriate to detain someone due to their vulnerability, and this might include the development of a vulnerability tool that not only measures vulnerability at point of detention but also on an ongoing basis.
“There is evidence that detention not only exacerbates mental health problems but actually causes them. The Home Office has a moral and legal duty to ensure that they do not detain those for whom detention is most damaging.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We take all incidents affecting the welfare of detainees and staff at immigration removal centres extremely seriously. We expect the highest standards from our contractors and monitor their performance regularly.
“Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system and we are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect. Detention is only used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary.
“We believe that those with no right to be in the UK should return to their home country and we will help those who wish to leave voluntarily. Otherwise we will enforce their removal.”
A G4S spokesman also commented on recent incidents.
He said: "We are confident in the high standard of care which we provide.
“We train our colleagues to respond effectively to incidents of this nature, all of which were brought to a safe conclusion.”
Dealing with mental health
THE Home Office commissioned the Tavistock Institute charity to consider the way mental health issues are dealt with in immigration detention.
The results have now been published in conjunction with the home secretary’s announcement.
The report was prepared by Dr David Lawlor, Dr Mannie Sher and Dr Milena Stateva.
The report read: “The relationships between policy makers, managers, detention centre custody staff, healthcare staff and case workers may sometimes be characterised by a degree of mutual defensiveness.
“Mutual antagonism and suspicion operate in the relationships between the Home Office and some non-governmental organisations, official oversight bodies and voluntary organisations operating in the sector.
“Detention itself can create highly stressful situations for detainees and staff alike. Building of unrealistic expectations as to the likelihood of staying in the UK by those advising them can also lead to increased uncertainty and stress for detainees.
“Vulnerable detainees may deteriorate in a detention situation where case workers, sub-contractors, solicitors and other agencies are often in disagreement with one another and thus feeding the detainees’ sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and fear of the future.”
“The home office accepted the report’s 11 recommendations as part of their nationwide review of detention centres which will be carried out over the next six months.”