Maintenance failures sparked riots at Heathrow detention center, FoI reveals | immigration and asylum

A catalog of maintenance failures over more than a decade led to power cuts that sparked riots at Europe’s largest immigration detention center last year, The Guardian has learned.

Riots in Harmondsworth, the 676-bed facility near Heathrow, prompted elite prison squads and the Metropolitan Police to rush to the scene to quell the protest. As a result of the blackout, the center had to be closed for several weeks and detainees were relocated to other UK detention centers and prisons.

Freedom of information responses obtained by the charity Medical Justice and passed on to The Guardian reveal the damning results of internal inquiries into what went wrong and found that “a lack of preventative routine maintenance” caused “multiple power failures” .

When asked about the flaws identified in the internal reports, the Home Office sources said they could not comment on the details as a full review is underway. However, a Home Office spokesman condemned the large number of small boat arrivals at the time of the incident.

Detainees affected by the power outages, which occurred during the first weekend of November last year, described terrifying conditions with no light, heat or running water that rendered bathrooms useless, and some were unable to access their medicines.

The protest involved detainees in one wing who reportedly refused to be locked in their cells due to poor conditions caused by power outages.

Findings from the Home Office’s internal inquiry into what went wrong reveal:

  • There is no evidence of maintenance to the air breakers since installation and one has tripped multiple times since June 2022

  • Some equipment is still at risk of failure because it is outdated and no longer manufactured

  • Change of strategy in some teams that are not operational since 2008/9

  • Excessive heat buildup in electrical switch room

A report dated September 2022 found there had been a “disappointing approach” to maintenance at the center and warned that if repair work is not carried out “as soon as possible” “the facility will remain at risk”.

A second report marked private and confidential dated November 2022 called for deficiencies in the maintenance system to be “urgently addressed.”

At the time of the power cuts and riots, some detainees spoke to The Guardian by phone.

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One said: “We continue to live in Harmondsworth in conditions that are not humane. People are running out of credit on their phones and are unable to contact their families. We haven’t left our cells for three days. They come to our cells to bring us food and leave it on the floor like we were dogs”.

Another said: “Cell emergency bells don’t work so if someone dies behind a cell door no one will know. The system has failed us. I feel more like a hostage than a prisoner.”

Emma Ginn, Director of Medical Justice, said: “Our clients, who include torture survivors, reported that they were locked in their cells with no lights or heat. Some told us that they did not have access to their medications, which could worsen their serious medical conditions and put them at risk of permanent impairment. These inhumane conditions were avoidable and smacked of putting profit before safety.”

The Home Office said: “In the autumn we were faced with unprecedented numbers of people arriving by small boats, which put huge pressure on our entire accommodation system. Following a power outage in Harmondsworth on November 4th, we saw unacceptable levels of violence and disorder. Home Office staff, contractors and officers from HMPPS and the Metropolitan Police worked tirelessly and professionally throughout the night to bring the situation under control and ensure the safe evacuation of all who stayed behind.”

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