As the Guardian has learned, a catalog of maintenance failures spanning more than a decade caused power outages that sparked riots at Europe’s largest immigrant detention center last year.
Riots in Harmondsworth, a 676-bed facility near Heathrow, led to elite prison squads and the Metropolitan Police being called to the site to quell the protest. As a result of the power outage, the center had to close for several weeks and detainees were transferred to other detention centers and prisons across the UK.
The Freedom of Information Responses obtained by the charity Medical Justice and provided to the Guardian reveal the damning results of an internal investigation into what went wrong and concluded that “lack of routine preventive maintenance” caused “multiple power outages”.
When asked about the failures identified in internal reports, Home Office sources said they were unable to comment on details as a full review was underway. However, a Home Office spokesman condemned the large number of small boat surges during the incident.
Prisoners affected by power outages on the first weekend of November last year described appalling conditions with no light, no heat or running water, making it impossible to use toilets and some not having access to their medications.
The protest was attended by prisoners from one wing who reportedly refused to be confined to their cells due to the poor conditions caused by the power outages.
The results of an internal Home Office investigation into what went wrong reveal:
No evidence of air circuit breakers maintenance since installation and one has tripped multiple times since June 2022
Some devices are still at risk of failure because they are obsolete and no longer manufactured
Strategy to change some devices that are not working since 2008/9
Excessive accumulation of heat in the electrical switchboard room
One report in September 2022 found a “disappointing approach” to maintenance at the center and warned that unless repair work was carried out “as soon as possible” the facility would “remain at risk”.
A second report, marked private and confidential, dated November 2022, called for the “urgent removal of deficiencies in the maintenance system.”
During the power outages and riots, some detainees spoke to the Guardian by phone.
One said: “We continue to live in Harmondsworth in conditions that are not humane. People are running out of credit on their phones and unable to contact their families. We haven’t left the cell for three days. They come to our cells to bring us food and leave it on the floor as if we were dogs.”
Another said: “Mobile alarm bells don’t work so if someone dies outside their cell door no one will know. The system failed us. I feel more like a hostage than a prisoner.”
Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, said: “Our clients, including torture victims, have reported being locked in their cells without lighting or heating. Some have told us that they do not have access to their medicines, which could worsen their serious condition and threaten to deteriorate permanently. These inhumane conditions were avoidable and smacked of putting profit before safety.”
The Home Office said: “In the fall, we had an unprecedented number of people arriving by small boats, putting enormous pressure on our entire accommodation system. After a power outage in Harmondsworth on November 4, we saw an unacceptable level 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 those present.”