Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Use of force: what is it like and what is at stake? 

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Post by Mary Bosworth, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford. This post draws on research Mary did between 2019 – 2023. 

 

In February 2024, the government published details of new contracts to deliver the infrastructure for training the detainee custody officers (DCOs) who will force people onto planes bound for Rwanda to have their asylum cases heard there: Catering (£315,000); some decommissioned plane fuselages (£671,090); and an extremely expensive hangar in which the training will occur (£6,425,285) from which “a pair of wealthy former Tory donors are set to profit”. More recently still, we have learned that the government appears to have found a company willing to provide planes to facilitate these flights – Air Tanker. On April 23, 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that there were now 500 staff who had been trained and were ready to escort people “all the way to Rwanda.” 

Although the UK government has locked people up on the basis of their immigration status for the purpose of their removal for decades, it was not until the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that the role of Detainee Custody Officer was formally defined in statute. And then it was vague: “to exercise custodial powers in order to hold individuals safely and securely and to escort them both in the UK and overseas in order to enforce their removal.” For the first time, officers in these roles were required to obtain a ‘certificate of authorisation’ from the Secretary of State, and to complete a training course.   

The content of this training is not made public. And as was made clear during the Brook House Inquiry, it varies slightly among the providers. G4S, for example, had simply transposed their training from the prison service, often not bothering to substitute to phrase Immigration Removal Centre for prison; whereas Serco, when it took over, added in more sessions on well-being and diversity. 

One aspect, however, remains the same – all DCOs, no matter who employs them – must be trained in the use of force.  Moreover, that training must also be regularly (usually, annually) updated.   

Officers in the escorting system, whose job is to force people onto a plane, follow methods set out in the Home Office Manual for Escorting Safely, in a system that goes by the perverse acronym HOMES. Others, who work in custodial institutions are taught a different set of techniques, known as Control & Restraint (C&R), which is also used in prison. Those who have contact with children should be instructed in ‘Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint’ (MMPR), although at no stage in my four-year research project from 2019 – 2023 had any officer I met received that training, even when they had regular contact with children, for example at the Kent Intake Unit or in Manston. 

During my research, HOMES training was delivered at the Prison Service’s National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) Headquarters in Kidlington by Prison Service staff in three specially designed spaces – a single storied room they called the ‘dojo’; a decommissioned plane fuselage; and another indoor space that was laid out in the dimensions of the custodial vans.  In September 2019, as part of my study of the UK Immigration Detainee Escorting system, I observed this training, and engaged in some of the role-playing activities. To the best of my knowledge, it is this training that the newly recruited staff employed to facilitate the Rwanda plan will also have received.   

aerial picture of the camp
Camspfield House. Credit: google maps 

HOMES training begins in a classroom at the front of the plane behind the cockpit.  Students enter up a metal staircase. The door inside has a poster reminding them to close it behind them, ‘to keep the birds out’. 

The day starts with a series of videos featuring the medical experts who helped design the restraint techniques. These explain basic physiology and identify particularly vulnerable groups and individuals: “older people’s skin tears more easily; pregnant women may find it hard to breath”. Next up, on the day I was observing, and after some ribald banter about the likely sexual prowess of those consultants, the prison officers turned to the legal framework which permits and regulates the use of force. It must always be ‘reasonable, proportionate and necessary’ they diligently reminded their students, as they flipped rapidly through multiple PowerPoint Slides. Having dispensed with health and law, the training turned to stereotypes and motivation. Officers would encounter people who may act unexpectedly, they warned the class, or won’t be as they seem.  

The next four days were more practical and hands on. It started slowly, with warm-ups and jogging. In a horrible reminder of school PE lessons, we all had to wear tracksuits. Not being known for my sportiness, I had to borrow one from my daughter.  Then we learned some of the basic methods of restraint; a ‘guiding hold’, a ‘figure of four’, each of which involved different ways of grasping onto someone else and trying to force them to stop moving. 

The trainers demonstrated the grips on one another, before telling us to practise them in small groups on each other. Someone had to be designated as the ‘detainee’. Initially they were told to be ‘passive’, and then to try to resist.  All the while, the prison service instructor would remind everyone of the physical dangers of hurting someone, or of being hurt by them, and the legal risks if they did it wrong. “Imagine the detainee is a bomb”, as one man memorably put it.  Their warnings were reinforced by posters in the “dojo” adorned with acrostics and diagrams. 

Although staff learn a variety of techniques of restraint and are always urged to try to ‘de-escalate’ through conversation, most of the HOMES training is angled at teaching them how to apply a waist restraint belt.  

This item of secure clothing – versions of which are also used in the NHS -- was introduced to the escorting system after G4S officers suffocated Mr Jimmy Mubenga on a British Airways plane during an attempt to deport him to Angola.  They had, the assistant deputy coroner, Karon Monaghan QC, reported, handcuffed him the ‘rear stack’ position and pushed his head down. He couldn’t breathe. In the waist restraint belt, people’s hands can only be bound to their front, and so the risk of asphyxiation is reduced. HOMES however, has not entirely ended the use of metal handcuffs. They are still permitted for ‘pain compliance’ (by bending someone’s wrist to make them obey a command).   

The item itself is made from fabric and is secured around a person’s waist with same kind of plastic buckles used on backpacks. SES Aviation, who sell the belt, include a photograph on their website

picture of a man held with the soft strap, with one hand kept and the other outside of it

As this image shows, on each side is a plastic handle, which can be used to lift the person if they refuse or are unable to walk. From each side too, project two fabric straps, rather like seat belts, which are attached to a Velcro cuff. Once the cuffs are wrapped around the person’s wrists, the staff member can pull in the straps, and force the person’s hands to their front; Or they can be left dangling. There is also a fabric leg restraint belt, which is basically just a strong Velcro strap that can be wrapped around people’s calves, to restrain them further and assist in lifting them. That also has a handle.  

In one of my first research meetings, months before I had seen a waist restraint belt or even knew much about the system, a senior staff member began describing it to me. “It’s very soft and gentle,” he assured me. Responding to criticisms in a recent report by HMIP that his employees kept people bound and restrained far too frequently and for too long on the flights, he went on rather more defensively, “It’s just Velcro. You know, they can pull in their arms or they can let them use cutlery and move around.” 

I had no idea what he was talking about. 

It was not just private sector people who talked positively about the waist restraint belt.  It was clear that the NTRG trainers were particularly proud of it. “There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world. And it was designed by the Prison Service and the Home Office working together,” they marvelled. 

In fact, being placed it this form of restraint was very uncomfortable and unnerving. I found the physical and emotional experience distressing, even though, of course everyone was extremely careful with me. In the week I observed, I often volunteered to ‘be the detainee’, since I didn’t really want to apply the techniques. “Don’t break the professor!” the trainer would cheerily call out, as the men fumbled around trying to grab my wrists to wrap them in the Velcro straps. 

Pressed up against them, I couldn’t stop thinking that these methods had been designed, via committee and with experts, to be applied on fellow human beings. Being quite so physically close to strangers was unpleasant.  

These are the same techniques and tools which officers will rely on for the Rwanda flights. But unlike me, the people who will be restrained won’t be able to leave when it feels too much.   

While there are certainly more violent and dangerous methods of restraint on the market, as well as techniques used informally and unlawfully – staff were fond of telling me their European counterparts were known to tape people to their chairs when they were ‘non-complaint’ - this piece of equipment designed to minimise the lethal risk of deportations, is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘gentle’. It is, instead, quite clearly an instrument of coercion, and one which I fear will be used extensively on the flights to Rwanda, just as it was used often on the so-called ‘Esparto’ Charter flights that returned ‘third country nationals’ to EU destinations to have their asylum cases heard there. The knock-on effect to the rest of the system, if the past is anything to go by, is also grim. There is no humane way to force someone onto a plane. And we should not be trying to do so.    

 

 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

M. Bosworth. (2024) Use of force: what is it like and what is at stake? . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/05/use-force-what-it-and-what-stake. Accessed on: 17/06/2024

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