Conditions in detention facilities

United Kingdom

Country Report: Conditions in detention facilities Last updated: 24/04/24


Refugee Council Visit Website

Overall conditions

The purpose-built IRC (Colnbrook, Brook House and the later wings at Harmondsworth) are built to ‘Category B’ (high security) prison designs, and are run by private security companies. While some efforts are made by contractors to distinguish regimes from those in prisons, in practice the physical environment means that most detainees experience these centres as prisons.[1] The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture raised concerns about the use of these prison-like facilities.[2] Brook House was built to the specification of a category B prison.[3] Morton Hall is a converted prison, albeit with lower security and was criticised for its prison-like physical environment.[4]

Women are detained separately from men[5] except where they are a family. Tinsley House has accommodation for one family group at a time[6] and Gatwick pre departure accommodation has capacity for two families.[7]Other than the family units, there are no special facilities for vulnerable people.

In theory health care provided to detainees is not limited to emergency health care; however, in practice detainees have difficulty obtaining access to care. Inspection reports frequently mention issues concerning the care of vulnerable individuals.[8] A report by the British Medical Association expressed concern at how health needs were met in detention, as well as commenting that some disabilities are not identified.[9]

Provision of showers, laundry facilities, etc. is usually to an adequate level so that detainees have access, but standards of cleanliness and repair are variable, with some detention centres having a much better maintained environment[10] and others poor. In particular some of the older prison buildings can be poorly maintained and drab.

Detainees normally wear their own clothes.

IRC have made attempts through the provision of ‘cultural kitchens’ where detainees can occasionally cook food of their choice, but the general provision is still considered to be poor.[11]

In 2017 an employee of Brook House IRC worked with the BBC to report undercover, resulting in a documentary broadcast in September 2017.[12] The company that runs the IRC suspended staff and began an internal investigation.[13] The Home Affairs Select Committee opened an Inquiry and took evidence from key individuals.[14] On 5 November 2019 the government announced the conversion of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) investigation of Brook House immigration removal centre to a statutory inquiry, in accordance with the Inquiries Act 2005. This conversion was needed so that the Inquiry would have the statutory powers to compel witnesses and establish the truth of what took place at Brook House.[15] The government announced this conversion following the High Court findings that the Home Secretary’s investigation into immigration detention at Brook House was inadequate.[16]. The Inquiry published its report in September 2023.[17] Key findings included 19 credible breaches of article 3 during the five month period examined, and a toxic culture. The report made 33 recommendations, including a 28 day time limit on detention, a review of the use of force, and training for staff and reviews of policies. In response, the government declined to implement a time limit on detention but said that it was carrying out reviews of policies.[18]

An inspection of Scotland’s only IRC, Dungavel, was one of the more positive of recent inspections although the deteriorating physical environment was noted and concerns expressed about the decision to hold some men with a history of violence against women in a mixed sex centre.[19]

An inspection of the short-term holding facilities with residential capacity was more positive than is often the case, in relation to the facilities and the care shown to detainees.[20]

Given the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in detention and the lack of opportunity for the Home Office to remove people from the UK there were calls throughout 2020 to release everyone from immigration detention.[21] Whilst this call was not heeded, the use of detention fell during 2020. However, this began to change in 2022, and an inspection of Brook House IRC found that the increased numbers were hindering any efforts to improve the experience for detainees.[22]



The rules require that each detainee should have the opportunity of at least one hour in the open air every day. This can be withdrawn in exceptional circumstances for safety or security.[23] Most IRCs have a gym or fitness suite and outdoor exercise space. Access is variable, ranging from being generally accessible during daylight hours to restricted access.

Detainees have access to the detention centre library and to the internet. Facilities normally include a fax machine. New guidance was issued by the Home Office in 2016, aiming to make the access in detention centres more consistent and ensure that sites were not inappropriately blocked, although it does not apply to those held in prisons. This guidance was updated in 2019.[24]


Health care and special needs in detention

The Detention Centres Rules provide that there must be a medical team in each detention centre, and that each detainee must be medically examined within 24 hours of arrival.[25] The only provision in the rules as to what access to the medical team a detainee can expect or request is that where a detainee asks a detention centre officer for medical attention, the officer must record the request and pass it to the medical team, and the medical practitioner must pay special attention to any detainee whose mental condition appears to require it.[26] The charity Medical Justice has documented the denial of crucial medical care for those with HIV[27]  as well as more generally.[28] A more recent legal challenge held that the Home Office was in breach of its legal duty towards detainees with HIV.[29] In 2017 the British Medical Association published a report raising several concerns, including how doctors deal with the conflict of interest inherent in providing healthcare to people who are detained and made a number of recommendations.[30] The guidance on ‘Rule 35’ reports was revised in 2019 although an ICIBI inspection published in 2023 found that the Rule 35 process was not meeting its aim and that safeguards were not working consistently or effectively.[31]

Whilst guidance has been produced for those needing to be taken to hospital from detention,[32] anecdotal reports of last-minute cancellations are common.[33] The follow up Shaw review, published in July 2018,[34] includes a detailed analysis of healthcare provision and contains concerns as well as remarking on improvements. The report includes a description of healthcare in each centre and comments on the physical environment as well as discussing issues with staff, detainees and NGOs. Some improvement from the previous report was identified but concerns remain that healthcare in detention does not match the standards expected in the community.

Health care in England has been transferred to the National Health Service (NHS) commissioning provisions.[35] This was a change which had been argued for by medical professionals, Parliamentarians and others.[36]  The Home Office does not collect data on the numbers of people with mental illness in immigration detention. NGOs regularly request the numbers of incidents of self-harm in immigration detention which required medical treatment. A Freedom of Information request showed that between January 2018 and September 2023 there were 1,743 self-harm and suicide attempts that were so serious that medical treatment was required. This was across four of the IRCs, Brook House and Tinsley House, Heathrow, and Yarl’s Wood.[37]

Detention centres have a local group of approved visitors, who provide an external point of reference for detainees and the centre. Visitors increasingly report that detainees are experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress, are self-harming, have symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or are suffering from severe and enduring mental illness.[38]




[1] See e.g. Brook House Inquiry Report, 2023, available at:

[2] Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, ‘Anti-torture committee highlights immigration issues in the UK’, 8 February 2024, available at:

[3] HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, September 2019, available at:

[4] HM Inspector of Prisons, Report of an unannounced inspection of Morton Hall, March 2020, available at:

[5] Independent Monitoring Boards, ‘The re-purposing of Yarl’s Wood IRC leads to a challenging year’, 7 July 2023, available at:  

[6] Independent Monitoring Boards, ‘Tinsley House IRC 2020 annual report’, 26 March 2021, available at:

[7] Home Office, Gatwick pre-departure accommodation information, 26 June 2017, available at:

[8] HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on an unaccounted Inspection of Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, 2019, available at:

[9] British Medical Association, Locked up, locked out, 2017, available at:

[10] Report on an unannounced inspection of Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, December 2022, available at:

[11] See e.g. HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on the unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood, October  2023, available at:

[12] BBC, ‘What I saw when I went undercover’, available at:

[13] The Guardian, ‘G4S staff suspended from Brook House immigration centre over abuse claims’, 1 September 2017, available at:

[14] House of Commons, Brook House Immigration Removal Centre inquiry, available at:

[15] Written statement Home Secretary to Parliament, 5th November 2019, available at:

[16] EDAL, ‘The United Kingdom: High Court finds Home Secretary’s investigation into immigration detention     inadequate’, 14 June 2019, available at:

[17] The Brook House Inquiry Report, 19 September 2023, available at:  

[18] Home Office and Immigration Enforcement, Government response to the Brook House Inquiry report, 19 March 2024, available at:

[19] HMIP, Report on an unannounced inspection of Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre, November 2021, available at:

[20] HMIP inspection of STHF at Larne House, Manchester airport and Yarl’s Wood,

[21] See joint letter “Coronavirus: call to release all people from immigration detention”, March 2020, available at:

[22] HMIP, Report on an unannounced inspection of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, September 2022, available at:

[23] The Detention Centre Rules 2001 SI No. 238, Rule 18, available at:

[24] Home Office, Detention Services Order January 2020, available at:

[25] The Detention Centre Rules 2001 SI No. 238, available at:

[26] The Detention Centre Rules 2001 SI No. 238, Rules 33 and 35, available at:

[27] Medical Justice, Detained and Denied: the clinical care of detainees living with HIV/AIDS, 2011, available at:

[28] Medical Justice, ‘Inadequate healthcare in detention’, accessed 24 March 2024, available at:

[29] High Court, CSM v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2021] EWHC 2175 (Admin), available at:

[30] British Medical Association, Locked up, locked out, 2017, available at:   

[31] ICIBI, Third annual inspection of Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention June to September 2022, January 2023, available at:

[32] Detention Services Order – Medical Appointments outside of the detention estate, available at:

[33] E.g. Medical Justice, available at:

[34] Stephen Shaw, Assessment of government progress in implementing the report on the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons, July 2018, available at:

[35] National partnership agreement for immigration removal centre (IRC) healthcare in England 2022-2025, available at:

[36] The Detention Forum, ‘The national shame that is healthcare in UK immigration detention’, 13 October 2014, available at:

[37] The Guardian, Self-harm incident nearly every day in UK immigration detention, data shows, 27 November 2023, available at:

[38] Ali McGinley and Adeline Trude, Positive duty of care? The mental health crisis in immigration detention, AVID and BID, 2012, available at: and

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection