Dostoevsky said a society’s civilisation can be judged by its prisons. I would add this: a society’s humanity can be judged by its immigration removal centres.
What does it say about us that a man who entered Britain on a valid business visa – with all the optimism and ambition that entails – died emaciated, dehydrated and in a state of utter despair, at a detention centre near Heathrow.
That Prince Kwabena Fosu’s story could unfold in modern Britain is hard to comprehend. A 31-year-old Ghanaian national, he was experiencing a psychiatric crisis so acute that – it was said during the inquest – even someone with no expertise would have noticed. He was taken to the Harmondsworth centre, where staff instead labelled him disruptive – his mental health was never assessed – and placed him in segregation, where for six days he lay naked on a concrete floor, not eating, drinking or sleeping. He died on 30 October 2012, emaciated, from hypothermia, dehydration and malnourishment, weighing only 47kg, having lost 15% of his body weight in less than a week.
In death, he suffered further. His family, unable to afford an alternative, have to live with the fact that he is buried alongside two others in a shared grave without a headstone. Then the BBC published a photo stripping him of any further dignity, showing him surrounded by detritus and human waste, his bare feet exposed from under a blanket placed over his corpse.
Who really runs Britain’s immigration removal centres? In Fosu’s case, the Home Office contracted the running of the centre to GEO Group, whose American counterpart is behind Donald Trump’s detention of migrants at United States borders. GEO in turn contracted healthcare to Nestor Primecare Services (later placed in administration), which in turn contracted the Jersey Practice – a west London GP surgery – which in turn contracted a locum agency, Beacon Care Services. Criminal charges were brought against GEO and Nestor, but later dropped.
A vulnerable person dependent on these services would be unlikely to know any of that. What it amounted to in real life, for Fosu, was being seen by four GPs, two nurses, two Home Office contract monitors, three members of the Independent Monitoring Board and countless detention custody officers – all of whom seemingly failed to apply their humanity.
Home Office officials admitted at his inquest this week that his was a “tragic” case. The department says it has now increased staff numbers, improved safeguarding, and introduced a policy for adults at risk. But did someone need to die for any of that to happen? The campaign organisation Inquest – which assisted Fosu’s family – points out that a year earlier, in 2011, Brian Dalrymple died at Colnbrook, which together with Harmondsworth is run as a single institution. His death involved many of the same staff; his inquest uncovered similar failures.
Events since then make it hard to believe that much has changed. In 2013, evidence emerged that women in another immigration detention centre – the notorious Yarl’s Wood – had been sexually abused by staff. In 2017 there were six detainee deaths in one year. A review into the entire system in 2016, four years after Fosu died, found that people facing deportation were still being put in segregation facilities – an idea copied from the prison system – that are “not suitable for any detainee with a serious mental health condition”.
Successive Conservative governments continue to ignore calls for immigration detention to be limited to 28 days, a suggestion sanctioned by almost all informed observers and professionals. Not that this would not have helped Fosu. He was so vulnerable he died within six days. One of the few silver linings of a Heathrow third runway would have been the demolition of Harmondsworth, although the chances are that it would have been replaced – as Yarl’s Wood was after it was set on fire in 2002, by a prison-like facility “characterised amongst other things by long corridors and an absence of natural light”.
The main problem with immigration detention is that, at a cost of more than £34,000 per detainee per year, it doesn’t actually work, and has been found time again to be “not a particularly effective means of ensuring that those with no right to remain do in fact leave the UK”. For the utterly heartless, that is reason enough for radical change. For everyone else, there is Prince Fosu.
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist