On the Brook House Inquiry

Nicholas Reed Langen

Brook House Immigration Removal Centre is on the south perimeter of Gatwick Airport. It is emblazoned with the vermillion branding of Serco, the security company, and encircled by a chainlink fence topped with spools of barbed wire. Constructed to Category B prison standards, the second highest level of security, this is architecture intended to intimidate and to imprison. It communicates to those inside and out that from the perspective of the state, those inside have done wrong.

Officially, Brook House is not a prison, and no one is kept there because they have been convicted of a crime and sentenced by a court. Instead, it houses more than five hundred men who have been found – or are suspected – to be in the country illegally, and are due to be deported. In theory, no one is supposed to reside there for any meaningful length of time. Legislation restricts the use of IRCs (Brook House is one of ten across the UK) to holding those whose deportation is ‘imminent’. But people are routinely detained in IRCs for weeks or months.

Residents at Brook House may have some liberties that are denied to those in formal penal institutions, but they are not at liberty in any meaningful sense. Guards (overwhelmingly white) patrol the corridors, searches are conducted on a whim, and almost every aspect of life is subject to state control. The people forced to live there (almost all Black, Middle Eastern or Asian) become viewed – and may come to view themselves – as wrongdoers deserving punishment. One former detainee, a Pakistani doctor, said on a BBC Panorama documentary in 2017 that he felt like a ‘criminal without any crime’.

The film was made by a detention custody officer turned undercover reporter, Callum Tulley. His recordings reveal a chaotic environment, where a minority of detainees – often those who have served time in actual prisons – terrorise the majority. The broadcast led to an inquiry, chaired by Kate Eaves, which opened in October 2019 and published its report earlier this month. The Home Office has overall authority for the IRCs but outsources the management of them to its privatised shock troops. Instead of safeguarding the asylum seekers and migrants whom it seizes and confines, the government commodifies them. They are passed over into the clutches of private corporations, who use them to extract profit. Brook House was run by G4S until the expiry of its contract in May 2020 when the government awarded the new contract to its competitor, Serco.

The report opens with a series of ‘pen portraits’ describing the lives of some of those detained and abused under the auspices of G4S between 1 April and 31 August 2017. A Grenadine soldier, anonymised as D643, who served in the British Army, was locked up at Brook House after surviving three tours of duty. His confinement, in defiance of Home Office-commissioned medical advice, was ‘psychological torture’, he said.

An Egyptian asylum-seeker (D1527) was told that the man who ‘sat on my head and strangled me’ was ‘just doing his job’. He thought that physical abuse from state officials was ‘part of being in detention’.

Abuse and neglect were so ingrained at Brook House, the inquiry found, that even those guards who did not want to humiliate and degrade the detainees ended up doing so in order to ‘fit in’. Whistleblowing posters exhorting guards to ‘Speak Out’ were usually marred with graffiti. The government did little to ensure that its contractors were behaving responsibly. The Home Office relied on self-monitoring and self-reporting by G4S instead of ‘conducting rigorous oversight of its own’.

Nothing in the report comes as a surprise – or it shouldn’t. It reflects the longstanding attitude of the British government. ‘Whether you’re a visa over-stayer, a foreign criminal or a failed asylum seeker,’ the Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith said at the opening of Brook House in 2009, ‘the UK Border Agency is determined to track you down and remove you from Britain.’ The anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have ramped up through thirteen years of Tory government, from Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ and ‘go home’ vans to Suella Braverman’s calls this week for the government to stop recognising the asylum claims of people facing persecution for their sexuality.

It is patently wrong that asylum seekers and other migrants are needlessly locked up and traumatised by the state, guilty only of searching for a better and safer life. Even before this report was released, anyone paying attention knew what the government was permitting in centres like these. Investigations by journalists and court-ordered inquiries can help to hold those responsible to account. The problem is that nothing will change until there are actual consequences for whichever government is in power.

Read more in the LRB Archive

Luke Noronha: At the Deportation Tribunal
Catherine Hall: Before Windrush
William Davies on the Hostile Environment