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. Morton Hall is a converted prison, albeit with lower security and was criticised for its prison-like physical environment.
Women and children are detained separately from men except where there are family units. The Cedars, the family facility opened in 2010, was closed in 2016 and a new facility at Tinsley House has replaced it.
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. 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.
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 and others poor. In particular some of the older prison buildings can be poorly maintained and drab. A 2019 report of an inspection of Colnbrook described prison like conditions and excessive use of handcuffing.
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.
In 2017 an employee of Brook House IRC worked with the BBC to report undercover, resulting in a documentary broadcast in September 2017. The company that runs the IRC suspended staff and began an internal investigation. The Home Affairs Select Committee opened an Inquiry and took evidence from key individuals.
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. The government announced this conversion following the High Court findings that the Home Secretary’s investigation into immigration detention at Brook House was inadequate.. The Inquiry has begun but not concluded.
An inspection of Scotland’s only IRC, Dungavel, was, as usual 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.
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.
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 the year to release everyone from immigration detention. Whilst this call was not heeded, the use of detention fell during 2020.
Guidance was issued to IRCs and STHF for how to manage detention during Covid-19 including responding to outbreaks, Preventative measures including cohorting and controlling of visits. 
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. 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. Following a Channel 4 TV programme exposing an abusive culture in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, detainees reported that access to the website for the NGO Habeas Corpus was blocked, as well as access to other sites. Access to social media and skype are prevented. The All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into detention found that ‘in practice, detainees are often blocked from accessing sites that appear to have no security risk. These include the websites of Amnesty International, the BBC, IRC visitors’ groups, foreign language newspapers and other NGOs. The panel were particularly alarmed by reports that areas of the inquiry’s own website were not accessible in some IRCs.’ 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.
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. 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. The charity Medical Justice has documented the denial of crucial medical care. The All Party Parliamentary Group and the Tavistock Institute are among those who have reported on failings in medical care in detention. 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. The guidance on ‘Rule 35’ reports was revised in 2019 although HMIP reports still refer to insufficient safeguards to vulnerable detainees and reports not submitted for suicidal detainees.
Whilst guidance has been produced for those needing to be taken to hospital from detention, anecdotal reports of last-minute cancellations are common. The follow up Shaw review, published in July 2018, 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. This was a change which had been argued for by medical professionals, Parliamentarians and others. However, the NHS has contracted the healthcare in IRC to commercial companies which have been running detention and escort services and not to specialist health providers. As a result, staff and facilities for identifying and treating mental illness and distress vary greatly between IRC. 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 charity reported ongoing concerns about this issue in September 2019.
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.
 See e.g. Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG): A Prison in the Mind: Mental health implications of detention in Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, 2012, available at: http://bit.ly/1THGggs.
HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on an unaccounted Inspection of Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3b0bi19.
 HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on an unaccounted Inspection of Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3b0bi19.
 Written statement Home Secretary to Parliament 5th November 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3aY6zg7
 EDAL, ‘The United Kingdom: High Court finds Home Secretary’s investigation into immigration detention inadequate’, 14 June 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2OTYiR5.
 See joint letter “Coronavirus: call to release all people from immigration detention”, March 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3s4Pqte.
 Home Office, Guidance for Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), Residential Short-Term Holding
Facilities (RSTHFs) and escorts during the COVID-19 pandemic, January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3extHGD.
 HM Inspector of Prisons, Report on unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, May 2015, available at: http://bit.ly/1IQVwQe; Report on an unannounced inspection of The Verne Immigration Removal Centre, March 2015.
 The APPG Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom, 43.
 Home Office, Detention Services Order January 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2UbjB42.
 Self Harm and Suicide in Immigration detention, Bail for Immigration Detainees, September 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2THa0A9 https://bit.ly/2THa0A9.
 Ali McGinley and Adeline Trude, Positive duty of care? The mental health crisis in immigration detention, AVID and BID, 2012.