Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

After Brook House: continued abuse in immigration detention


Sophie Cartwright


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Sophie Cartwright. Sophie is the Senior Policy Officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service UK and a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology. The refugee charity Jesuit Refugee Service UK have just published a new report, After Brook House: continued abuse in immigration detention, examining parallels between the Brook House Inquiry and ongoing practices in detention. The findings are bleak. 


In September 2023, the long awaited report of the Brook House Inquiry was published. The Inquiry examined abuse at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) occurring over several months in 2017. The scale of the abuse first came to public attention when an employee at Brook House was so horrified by what he witnessed that he worked with BBC Panorama to make a documentary exposing it. The independent inquiry was eventually mandated as a result. Its findings were excoriating: highlights included numerous instances of violent abuse against detained people, and routine, layered failures to care for and safeguard them, alongside a “toxic” and “dehumanising” culture.  

cover of the report
Image credit: Carcazan

The Inquiry report was horrifying, but not exactly surprising. The report author noted her findings and recommendations too often echoed earlier reports. For years, JRS UK has supported people held in detention at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs near Heathrow, and others who have previously been detained at different IRCs across the UK. Detention does them lasting damage. Additionally, many of the Inquiry findings mirrored research published by JRS UK in 2020, examining the experience and impact of UK immigration detention centres over the previous two decades – essentially the lifetime of the UK’s modern detention estate.  

We wanted to explore apparent parallels between events described in the Brook House Inquiry report and immigration detention now. To do this, we held a workshop with men and women who had been detained in the last year. They had all been supported at some point by our detention outreach team at Heathrow, but many had been moved around different centres across the UK. 

We asked them to reflect on key themes in the Brook House Inquiry report in light of their own experience of detention. Some workshop participants jumped in immediately to share similar stories when presented with the Inquiry’s findings. Others were initially quieter, but then gradually opened up with their own experiences. Two things were especially striking in the workshop. First, so much of what participants had encountered in detention echoed the Inquiry findings. Second, there was a strong sense of solidarity and empowerment in telling stories they were not supposed to tell. The inquiry, participants felt, had begun to shine a light on detention. Now, they were doing so again.  

After the workshop, we conducted follow-up interviews and analysis of the casework our detention outreach team had done in over the last year. This allowed us to explore themes in more depth, and give them wider context.  

Several themes at the heart of the Brook House Report recurred especially strongly in this research: 

  • Immigration detention feels like prison. One participant explained “I was kept in a place which was a prison, although they did not call it a prison. There were bars on the windows, there were CCTV cameras watching you...”;   

  • There are huge, routine deficiencies in healthcare. This includes failure to provide necessary medicine and staff ignoring medical emergencies. It is extraordinarily difficult to access mental health support in detention,  coupled with a culture of disbelief;  

  • People are segregated – put in solitary confinement – inappropriately, including as a highly counterproductive way of managing mental health problems; this is of course in keeping with both the prison-like nature of detention, and the abysmal attitude to mental health.  

  • Safeguards for vulnerable people are largely absent, and where they exist, they do not work. Even where vulnerability is recognised, vulnerable people, including survivors of torture, trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, are routinely kept in detention. Severe mental health problems are often ignored in detention reviews. For example, a review of someone who regularly talked to his food at mealtimes stated that he had no mental health difficulties. 

  • Force is used inappropriately, and often gratuitously, against detained people. There is a staffing culture of abuse and humiliation within detention centres, and in the practices of detaining people and moving detained people. A workshop participant described abuse he had witnessed: “One person they took out of our block, dragging them on the ground, screaming and shouting.”  

  • Detention as a whole is extremely damaging to mental health, and long and indefinite detention are especially harmful. The UK is currently the only country in Europe with no time limit on detention. 

The message was clear: mistreatment, abuse, and neglect in detention continue today. The events and culture that came to light at Brook House in 2017 are neither purely historical nor anomalous. Events and culture like this are - still - endemic across the UK’s detention estate, and have deep systemic roots. Change is long overdue. The Brook House Inquiry makes recommendations that would constitute a significant step in the right direction. The most significant, arguably, is for a time limit of 28 days on detention.  

However, the government response to the Brook House Inquiry Report, published in March 2024, suggests little will be done. It focused on changes purportedly already made to detention, stating: “The government has made significant reforms to immigration detention over the past few years.” Additionally, the Illegal Migration Act hugely reduces oversight of detention and expands the contexts in which it can be used. It threatens to worsen the problems identified by the Brook House Inquiry and in our research, and subject more people to them.  

An entirely different approach is urgently needed. Faced with the bleak reality of detention, we must confront how disproportionate it is to incarcerate people in this way simply for immigration control. After Brook House calls for an end to immigration detention, and for a time limit of 28 days or less for as long as it does exist.  


The findings of After Brook House will be shared at a webinar on Tuesday 14th May, from 5.30-7pm. You can register to attend here.


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Cartwright. (2024) After Brook House: continued abuse in immigration detention. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/05/after-brook-house-continued-abuse-immigration-detention. Accessed on: 18/06/2024


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