This blog comes from Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, who support people detained in Dungavel immigration removal centre (IRC) and tweet at @SDVisitors

The latest inspection report on Dungavel IRC, published on 16 November, makes interesting reading. Dungavel usually receives positive reports from inspectors, in stark contrast to other detention centres and this one follows that pattern to a great extent, though there has been a deterioration since the last inspection. The inspectors praise the staff working at the centre and the relationships they try to build with people detained there.

As visitors to people in Dungavel, we meet many people who have been detained elsewhere in the detention estate and they agree that being detained there is better than being detained in Harmondsworth, Morton Hall, Brook House or any of the other places they have experienced.

And yet, the inspection report also shows that 41% of people detained in Dungavel at the time of the inspection felt unsafe. These feelings of insecurity and lack of safety came from being detained indefinitely, with no time limit, and were exacerbated by being surrounded by others who were stressed and sometimes angry at their circumstances.

As visitors to people detained there, we know this also to be true.

The inevitable conclusion is that no matter how well a detention centre is managed, it is impossible to detain people indefinitely without causing harm.

At the time of the inspection, 38% of people in the centre had been detained for more than 28 days, four people had been there for 6-12 months and two people had been in Dungavel for over a year. The longest someone had been detained there was 440 days. And remember, these figures are only for the time people had spent at Dungavel. A quarter of the people detained there at the time of the inspection had been transferred from another detention centre or short term holding facility, so had been detained for longer. And none of them knew when their detention would end.

Unlike other recent inspections, the report doesn’t explicitly call for a time limit on detention but does raise significant concerns about Home Office practice. The issues highlighted include:

  • Many people (39%) were transported to the centre at night for reasons of operational convenience rather than necessity, and over half of the people in detention had spent over four hours in escort journeys to get to Dungavel. Half had problems on arrival and a third felt depressed or suicidal.
  • Poor Home Office casework planning led to the inappropriate detention of an elderly disabled couple. Staff at the centre immediately assessed them as inappropriate for detention but it took five days for them to be released.
  • In most of the rule 35 reports examined in detail by inspectors, the Home Office accepted evidence of torture but did not consider this to be sufficient to release people from detention.
  • Dental care was significantly worse than at the previous inspection. This was no longer provided on site and waiting times had doubled. Appointments were frequently cancelled due to lack of escorting. This was described as ‘unacceptable’.

Again, these issues are familiar to us as visitors to Dungavel. In the last year we have been particularly aware of people experiencing severe dental pain and not being appropriately cared for or treated. In one case, the dental pain was related to previous experience of torture.

The report does not let the management of the centre off the hook entirely. It makes a number of recommendations for improvement. Importantly, inspectors repeat the concerns they raised at the last inspection about the inherent risks involved in detaining women in a predominantly male centre and note that specific policies to address this are underdeveloped.

This is a concern we share. Our experience is that women can feel isolated and frightened in Dungavel. This is exacerbated by the accommodation provided for them which, if full, can be cramped and feel over crowded. This is particularly the case as women are less likely to take advantage of the relative freedom of movement around the centre and grounds that is available at Dungavel, due to the fact that public space is dominated by men. We try prioritise visiting women who are detained but are concerned that some may even feel reluctant to come to the visits room because it is also dominated by men.

I found reading the report profoundly frustrating. Staff at the centre will no doubt be satisfied with the inspectors’ overall assessment of their work. The Home Office will be relieved that the headline findings are not of a centre dominated by violence, abuse and self-harm.

But the fact that an inspection that finds that nearly half of the people detained feel unsafe might be considered a win is a scandal.

We know what needs to happen. The UK Government has said that it wishes to reduce both the scale and length of detention. It is clear what they need to do to achieve that. They must immediately introduce a 28 day time limit on detention, end the detention of vulnerable people and support the development of a range of community based alternatives to detention.