Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre - calm, with caring staff, but too prison-like

Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in Harmondsworth, west London, close to Heathrow, was found by inspectors to resemble a prison and to have made “uneven progress” in treatment and conditions since it was previously inspected in 2016.

During the most recent inspection in November and December 2018, the IRC held 246 detainees, significantly fewer than around 340 in 2016.

Among positive findings, according to Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, “it was encouraging to see that whistle-blowing procedures were well embedded and the duty of care that staff have towards detainees was well understood.

“Detainees’ personal physical safety was generally good and there was a calm atmosphere in the centre.”

One of the most significant improvements was in staff-detainee relationships and in respect in general. In the inspection survey, 81% of detainees said that most staff treated them with respect, compared with 54% at the last inspection.

Some provision, such as the very good cultural kitchen, had been further improved. Preparation for release and removal had room for improvement but remained a good area overall. The strong welfare team and good involvement by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in the centre were particularly commendable.

However, inspectors noted some less positive findings:

  • Despite the emphasis the Home Office has placed on an ‘adults at risk’ policy, there was poor identification of, and therefore uncertain care for, some of the most vulnerable groups. Although care for those at risk of suicide or self-harm was carried out well, self-harm had risen more than threefold since 2016, though the population had fallen.
  • Some elements of security were excessive. The vast majority of detainees attending external escorts were handcuffed without sufficient justification, and detainees on the men’s units were locked in cells for long periods.
  • There remained “considerable problems” with deteriorating accommodation and significant investment will be needed to improve the fabric of the centre.

Mr Clarke added that one of the intractable problems at Colnbrook was that, with the exception of the women’s unit, the IRC was “largely indistinguishable from a prison, and prisons are rarely suitable environments for immigration detainees held under administrative, as opposed to judicial, powers.

“It was notable that some of the most vociferous critics of the prison-like feel of the centre were the staff who worked there and who, on the whole, did a very good job of looking after detainees with decency and care.” Some staff described the “daunting” or “terrifying” impact on new arrivals.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“The Home Office is planning to build a new centre to replace Colnbrook, and the neighbouring Harmondsworth, when the new Heathrow runway is constructed. It is to be hoped that the design problems of Colnbrook, including poor ventilation and sealed windows, limited outdoor space and exercise yards that would be austere for most prisons, will be avoided in the future. In the meantime, managers and staff were working hard to make improvements within the confines of the current environment and told us that the gaps in the systems for identifying and supporting vulnerable detainees would be quickly addressed.”

– End –

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 16 April 2019, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website here.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. Colnbrook immigration removal centre opened in 2004. It was managed by Serco until 1 September 2014 when Mitie Care & Custody took over the operation of both Colnbrook and Harmondsworth.
  4. Notable features from this inspection: an average of 124 detainees arrived each week during the previous six months; in our survey, 81% of detainees said most staff were respectful, significantly higher than at the last inspection (54%); in the previous six months, 190 Rule 35 reports had been written and 16% had led to release; the average total length of detention for detainees at Colnbrook at the time of our inspection was 75 days, longer than we have seen in other immigration removal centres; fewer detainees were held for prolonged periods than at our last inspection, but seven had been held for more than a year, two of whom had been in detention for over two years; during the previous six months, 2,965 detainees had left the centre, 58% of whom had been removed from the UK, 19% transferred to another immigration removal centre and 23% released into the community.
  5. This unannounced inspection took place between 19 November and 7 December 2018.
  6. For more on how HMI Prisons inspects prisons and other places of detention, please read here.
  7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 020 3334 0357 or 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.