Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea living in Brooklyn, is one of 71 detainees to have died in the last four years in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An illegal immigrant confined to a detention centre after his green card application was rejected, Bah died after a fall that no one seems to have witnessed. ICE, which was set up by the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, is responsible for the detention of a staggering number of people: 311,213 last year, a million since 2004. They are held in prisons in which, according to Mark Dow, the author of American Gulag (2005), ‘extreme forms of physical abuse are not just aberrations.’ The centre where Bah was detained is managed by Corrections Corporation of America, a firm set up in 1983 in Nashville by a group of investors that included a former chairman of Tennessee’s Republican Party. A pioneer in running private prisons, it has also been quick to specialise in immigrant detention, the fastest growing branch of the incarceration business.

CCA describes itself as the ‘nation’s largest provider of outsourced corrections management’, with 70,000 inmates and 16,000 staff. Its website speaks proudly of ‘similarities in mission and structure’ with the US army and makes a special appeal to veterans in search of work: ‘How will you make the transition from military to civilian life? CCA features a paramilitary structure: a highly refined chain of command, and policies and procedures that dictate facility operations.’

Transparency is not one of those policies and procedures. On the contrary: according to Dow, CCA ‘has warned its shareholders of the dangers of public scrutiny’. So it’s no surprise that CCA still hasn’t explained how Bah fell, or why he was shackled and left untreated for 15 hours afterwards. US immigration officials haven’t said anything either. Indeed, ICE operates in almost perfect opacity: it’s not obliged even to keep track of deaths among detainees, much less to report them publicly. When an immigrant dies in custody, the recorded cause of death can be as vague and tautological as ‘unresponsiveness’ – something the ICE knows all about.

Britain, which holds about 2500 people in ‘immigration removal centres’, isn’t much more open. The UK now has Europe’s most thoroughly privatised detention system, though the idea didn’t catch on immediately. In 1995, Jack Straw, then shadow home secretary, said: ‘It is not appropriate for people to profit out of incarceration.’ Two years later, with Labour in power, he’d changed his mind: ‘If there are contracts in the pipeline and the only way of getting the accommodation in place very quickly is by signing those contracts, then I will sign those contracts.’ One distinct advantage for the government is that it can’t be held legally accountable for the mistreatment of inmates not in its care. Today, seven out of ten immigration removal centres in Britain are privately run.

Instances of ‘self-harm’ are common in these places: in the last four months of 2007 alone, 42 detainees required medical attention after injuring themselves. Asylum seekers facing possible deportation to countries where they’re likely to be jailed, tortured or killed might well prefer to commit suicide, as Melanie McFadyean reported in the LRB (16 November 2006). Consider the case of Mañuel Bravo, who fled Angola disguised as a woman after his parents – opponents of the government – were murdered. When Bravo’s solicitor failed to show up for his asylum tribunal hearing in October 2002, he had to represent himself. Promised that he would be notified of the tribunal’s decision in a month, he spent the next three years waiting; until, at six one morning, with no warning, he and his 13-year-old son Antonio were arrested and transferred to Yarl’s Wood for deportation. Bravo hanged himself in a stairwell the following morning, his 35th birthday.

Yarl’s Wood, which has been managed by Serco since last year, has been racked by protests, riots and arson since the moment it opened in November 2001; more recently, it has been the scene of demonstrations by a group of mothers complaining about the wretched living conditions. According to one, parents are expected to wash baby bottles in the ‘toilet sink’. The conditions at Harmondsworth – a ‘fast-track’ centre run by Kalyx, a partner of CCA, and located conveniently close to Heathrow – are no better: the chief inspector of prisons likened it to a high security prison.

There is no sign of anyone coming to the detainees’ defence. In a landmark ruling in April denounced by the UN, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal granted the Home Office the right to deport refugees to war zones – to places like Basra and Baghdad. Sweden approved 85 per cent of Iraqi asylum claims last year: Britain approved 13 per cent – that’s 500 Iraqis. ‘We are pleased,’ a spokesman for the Home Office said, ‘that the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal has found that conditions in Iraq are such that an ordinary Iraqi civilian is not at serious risk from indiscriminate violence.’ Quite how they found this isn’t clear.

Maybe these ordinary Iraqi civilians will be comforted to discover that the same firms detaining them in immigration removal centres are providing various ‘services’ in Iraq. They may, to take one example, land at an airport managed by Serco. Sodexho, Kalyx’s parent company, has gone into catering, but it’s not likely that repatriated Iraqi refugees will be eating the meals they prepare: the company’s eight-year, $881 million contract, signed in 2003, is to feed the US Marines.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences