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Have you read the latest CPT factsheet on Immigration Detention? 

In March 2017, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a useful factsheet on immigration detention.  Its secretariat forms part of the Council of Europe (which is sometimes confused with the European Union but is distinct from it), to which the UK is a member state.  This article briefly explores potential relevance of this factsheet for the UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.

Who is CPT?

According to their website;

  • The CPT was set up under the Council of Europe’s “European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, which came into force in 1989.
  • It builds on Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
  • The CPT is not an investigative body, but provides a non-judicial preventive mechanism to protect persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other forms of ill-treatment. It thus complements the judicial work of the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Practically, the CPT conducts regular monitoring visits to places of detention, such as prisons, secure mental health units and immigration detention centres.  These visit usually take place every four years per country.

The factsheet

This particular factsheet is a short, nine-page document.  This and other factsheets ‘present the CPT’s standards on key issues’ but are not intended to be exhaustive. These standards have been developed through the CPT’s concrete experience of numerous monitoring visits to places of immigration detention.  The CPT also has a large volume of other resources, available on this webpage.

(Separately, the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), UNHCR and International Detention Coalition published a very practical manual on monitoring places of immigration detention which is widely used by Civil Society Organisations across the world.)

The factsheet is divided into the following sections, after the section called ‘introduction’:

  1. Detention as a last resort
  2. Safeguards during detention
  3. Suitable premises
  4. Additional material conditions for longer stays (over 24 hours)
  5. Open regime
  6. Qualified staff
  7. Discipline, segregation and means of restraint
  8. Monitoring and complaints mechanisms
  9. Adequate healthcare
  10. Care of vulnerable persons (in particular children)

Below is a non-exhaustive list of notable sections of the factsheet which might have direct relevance in the UK context.  Other sections also are also likely to prompt lively discussions on the gap between these standards and the UK’s practice, but are not elaborated in this article.

Time limit?

‘The CPT is of the view that the prolonged detention of persons under aliens legislation, without a time limit and with unclear prospects for release, could easily be considered as amounting to inhuman treatment.’ (page 2 of the factsheet)

In their latest UK visit report in 2016 (see page 93), the CPT was particularly critical of the UK’s practice of indefinite detention and stated:  ‘The CPT reiterates its recommendation that the United Kingdom authorities reconsider their policy of indefinite immigration detention. Further, it would like to receive detailed information on the measures taken to address the Shaw Review recommendations.’ This is not the first time the CPT raised the issue of indefinite immigration detention in the UK, and the tone of their remark appears to be getting firmer.

Carceral environment and prisons?

‘Persons detained under aliens legislation should be accommodated in centres specifically designed for that purpose, offering material conditions and a regime appropriate to their legal situation. Care should be taken in the design and layout of such premises to avoid, as far as possible, any impression of a carceral environment.’ (page 4 of the factsheet)

Prison-like conditions inside the UK immigration detention estate is well-noted by people with experience of detention, the UK’s own monitoring bodies such as HMIP, visitors’ groups and Civil Society Organisations. Two of the detention centres, the Verne and Morton Hall, were originally used as prisons.  Some of the more recently built centres, such as Colnbrook and Brook House have been built to the equivalent of Category B prisons.  Many are also held in ordinary prisons under immigration powers.  It would require a complete overhaul of the physical detention infrastructure – possibly including demolition of many – before this standard can be met in the UK.

Access to computers and the Internet?

‘Immigration detainees should have access to computers along with Voice over Internet Protocol or Skype facilities and basic internet access.’ (page 5 of the factsheet)

Much has already been said about certain websites blocked in detention centres. Those in immigration detention face particular difficulties in maintaining close contact with their friends, families and supporters because of isolated location of many of the detention centres. While people are allowed to carry mobile phones (without cameras) inside the centres, they are denied access to a number of alternative communications methods that are widely available in the community such as Facebook, Skype and Twitter.  It is encouraging to see the CPT advocating access to VIP and Skype facilities in the detention centres.

Use of batons?

‘The ethos of an immigration detention setting should not be carceral, which means that staff working within immigration detention facilities should not be equipped with batons, handcuffs or pepper spray.’ (page 6 of the factsheet)

According to the HMIP’s inspection report published in March 2017, the guards in Morton Hall detention centre, where there has been a threefold increase in self-harm and a decline in safety, carry batons.  The report also highlighted that the centre, which holds up to 392 men battling with anxiety and stress caused by the uncertainty of indefinite detention, ‘looks and feels like a prison’.  The use of baton has also been repeatedly criticized by the HMIP’s inspection team however no assurance has been given that this practice would be discontinued.

Vulnerable people and alternatives to detention?

‘Specific screening procedures aimed at identifying victims of torture and other persons in situation of vulnerability should be put in place and appropriate care should be provided. In this context, the CPT considers that there should be meaningful alternatives to detention for certain vulnerable categories of person. These categories include inter alia victims of torture, victims of trafficking, pregnant women and nursing mothers, children, families with young children, elderly persons and persons with disabilities.’ (page 8 of the factsheet)

Whether the recently implemented Adults At Risk Policy in the UK is reducing the number of vulnerable people and people at risk in detention is being contested.  What is clear, however, that no attempt has been made so far by the Home Office to develop ‘meaningful alternatives to detention for certain vulnerable categories of person.’, despite a call by a number of politicians and substantial evidence, practice and willingness of the civil society organisations to support such a process.

How can we use this factsheet and other CPT material?

In the eyes of the government, the CPT’s unique credibility as an independent monitoring body belonging to the Council of Europe should give their recommendations the level of authority that Civil Society Organisations’ evidence might struggle to achieve.  Yet, to this date, at least in the UK, the CPT’s standards and visit reports alone have not been sufficient enough to convince the UK government to change their detention policy and practice.  Advocates and campaigners should consider how the CPT and other monitoring bodies’ work can be best incorporated into their plan to influence detention policy and practice, alongside other tools for change that they have at their disposal.