The Harm of Detention

The Harm of Detention:Vulnerability and Becoming Vulnerable

My name is Romany Kisbee-batho, I have a degree in Politics from the University of Sheffield and volunteer with the Detention Forum, a network of organisations challenging the UK’s immigration detention system.

This article considers the harm resulting from being held in detention. I explore how the harm of detention is too narrowly focussed on categories of people defined as vulnerable, particularly torture survivors. I take this idea further by arguing that a focus on pre-existing vulnerabilities overlooks the harm of detention on anyone who is detained. Based on the principle that people vulnerable to harm should not be detained, I argue that the harm the detention system is doing to people demonstrates the need to pursue alternatives.

Adults at Risk

In the current Home Office Adults at Risk policy (AAR), it is stated that:

“The clear presumption is that detention will not be appropriate if a person is considered to be “at risk”. However, it will not mean that no one at risk will ever be detained. Instead, detention will only become appropriate at the point at which immigration control considerations outweigh this presumption.”

The list of conditions or experiences that could indicate that a person is vulnerable to harm in detention includes, among others, having been a victim of torture, suffering from a mental health condition or impairment, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suffering from serious physical disability, and having been a victim of sexual or gender-based violence (including female genital mutilation). 

Rule 35 is the mechanism which supposedly aims to ensure those who are particularly vulnerable are brought to the attention of those with direct responsibility for reviewing detention. For an individual to be regarded as “at risk”, they must self-declare that they are suffering from a condition, or have experienced a traumatic event (as summarised above), which would be likely to render them particularly vulnerable to harm if they were placed in detention or were compelled to remain in detention.

In cases where a self-declaration is not made, an individual may be considered “at risk” if those authorising or reviewing detention are themselves aware of evidence that could suggest these same effects on the individual.

1.      The weight afforded to self-declarations is categorised as limited, and known as ‘Level 1’.

2.      Evidence is given greater weight, and considered ‘Level 2’, when it is given as professional or official documentary evidence indicating that the individual is an adult at risk.

3.      To qualify as ‘Level 3’, this professional evidence must state that the period of detention would therefore be likely to cause harm.

Protecting vulnerable people from harm

These safeguards are often compromised by the fact that Rule 35 examinations are often not carried out when such an assessment would be appropriate. When they are carried out, self-declarations are often not considered credible, or other immigration factors are wrongly deemed to “outweigh” their evidence of risk. But the system is also flawed by the tendency to focus almost exclusively on torture victims as adults at risk.

As a report from the NGO Medical Justice notes, “a worrying development is the emphasis on the clause that relates to torture, with apparent disregard of the clauses relating to mental health and risk of being injuriously affected by detention.” This has grave consequences.

The latest annual report of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Yarl’s Wood IRC discusses the failure of AAR:

“the number of women with mental health problems who had to be held under Rule 40 [removal from association/solitary confinement] or Rule 42 [temporary confinement] and in the increased number of women sectioned in 2017 – up from 2 in 2016 to 14 in 2017.”

AAR is failing to safeguard the mentally ill. This is not to say survivors of torture are not failed by the system too, but the harm of detention on other people being held is overlooked.

Not only is this attention skewed within the detention system, but also in how problems in the system are reported in the media.

After Her Majesty’s Inspectorate on Prisons (HMIP) released its report on Harmondsworth, the media focused almost solely on the detention of torture victims despite the report showing much more.  See ‘The Home Office keeping torture victims in detention’ (The Guardian) and ‘The Home Office holding torture victims with ‘high level’ mental health needs in detention, finds watchdog’ (The Guardian) and ‘End the inhumanity of immigration detention: campaigners respond to a highly critical report on the detention of torture victims’(The Independent).  For example, the HMIP report stated:

“A blind detainee on an ACDT had been detained for over a year… and a wheelchair user who had tried to set himself on fire had been held for 15 months .”

Why did these stories receive little to no attention? The AAR is supposed to protect a broad spectrum of vulnerable people. Surely the media outrage should be directed towards the Home Office’s failure to protect all these people from harm, not only the victims of torture.  

Moreover, such a conceptualisation of vulnerability focuses on pre-determined personal factors. This isn’t to suggest that those within this remit should not be afforded special consideration. However, again, it tends to come at the detriment and expense of others, who are held in detention but are not within this particular cohort of vulnerability.

The harm of detention  

It should be borne in mind that many become vulnerable simply as a consequence of being placed in detention. This is demonstrated by statistics on the deterioration in mental health and the numbers of people in detention placed on suicide watch.  

In a report by Detention Forum’s Vulnerable People Working Group, “Rethinking ‘Vulnerability’ in Detention: a Crisis of Harm”, they suggest:

“a more holistic approach to vulnerability acknowledges a range of personal, social and environmental factors which may affect or indeed cause a person’s vulnerability. Such an approach also highlights the need to monitor how individuals’ vulnerability may change over time.”

The current process risks ignoring the different ways an individual can become vulnerable due to the harm of detention by relying solely on screening for pre-existing vulnerabilities.

On this issue, the considerations taken up by the Jesuit Refugee Service-Europe report were found ‘the most persuasive’ and quoted fully in the Shaw Review, noting how:

“Detention has the potential to harm many types of people: those with pre-existing special needs and otherwise healthy persons. It is important to stress that a person becomes vulnerable from the first day of their detention, as the individual’s personal condition is instantly affected due to their disadvantaged and weakened position.”

Hence the words of Detention Action, in their 2014 report ‘The State of Detention’ still ring true today:

“‘the concept of vulnerability is so vexed that it perhaps makes more sense to speaks of a crisis of harm in detention. It seems clear that, more than ever before, detention in the UK is harming people. This harm is frequently severe, whether or not the person was categorisable as vulnerable before they were detained’.

In a recent British Red Cross report, ‘Never Truly Free’, there is a quote from a Syrian person called Anlso:

“It’s a place where they shouldn’t keep people, because you might go in there mentally okay, but by the time you leave, you’re not mentally fine.” 

In this respect, if such attention is directed towards torture survivors because of the harm detention does to them, then more attention needs to be paid to the inherent injustice of the system, on all of the people detained, whether it be within the remits of the pre-determined personal factors or not.

The deprivation of liberty, for the purpose of administration, harms people.

As the British Medical Association argued in their report “Locked up, locked out”:

“If the detention environment cannot adequately protect the needs and interests of those held within it, there should be a serious reconsideration of current policy and practice.”

For these reasons, Stephen Shaw recommended in his 2016 report “that the Home Office investigate the development of alternatives to detention” (Recommendation 63).

It is time for the system of detention, and the harm it causes, to come to an end.


Image via Flickr-Dennis Jarvis