A shocking report on Harmondsworth, the British immigration lock-up run by GEO, America’s second biggest prisons contractor. Who are the GEO Group and what do they stand for?

ImmigrationAt Gatwick Airport last year, on Wednesday 23 January, British immigration officials detained an elderly Canadian man. He was taken to hospital. Then he was locked up at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre. A doctor examined him, reporting to the authorities that he was “frail, 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease . . .demented”.

The doctor marked his papers: “UNFIT for detention or deportation. Requires social care.”

The British Home Office chose to ignore the medical advice and continued to detain him.

On 8 February he was taken to hospital in handcuffs, then returned to his cell. Two days later he was taken back to hospital and kept in handcuffs for five long hours. His condition worsened. The cuffs stayed on. His heart stopped. Medical staff tried and failed to resuscitate him. The handcuffs were removed. His name was Alois Dvorzac.

In November 2012, another dying man had been taken in handcuffs from his Harmondsworth cell for treatment in hospital. He stayed cuffed while sedated, stayed cuffed while undergoing an angioplasty. Eventually the handcuffs were removed. Seven hours later he was dead.

Both cases are revealed today by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, in a shocking report on Harmondsworth, the immigration centre near Heathrow Airport that holds about 600 men awaiting removal from Britain.

They are detained for the “shortest possible period”. That’s the official line. In real life, many are detained indefinitely.

The inspectors, who dropped in unannounced last Summer, found one man who had spent two and a half years locked up at Harmondsworth. They said he seemed unlikely ever to be released since the Home Office had failed for years to obtain travel documentation for him.

Harmondsworth guards routinely subjected detainees to long periods of solitary confinement without reason, the inspectors reported. Muslims were more likely than others to be isolated.

Hunger strikers were monitored excessively, and for reasons that had nothing to do with their medical needs. Some were held regardless of clear medical grounds for release.

According to Home Office rules, victims of torture should not be detained. Inspectors found that Harmondsworth’s medical reports on alleged victims of torture were often poorly done, putting victims at risk of continued detention — a complaint raised repeatedly over years by the prisons inspectorate and, over years, ignored by the Home Office.

Detainees claiming to be under 18 were held at Harmondsworth for too long while their age was determined. Sometimes Home Office staff alone made age assessments, in contravention of the rules.

In one chilling insight into the department’s moral standards and modus operandi, the inspectors said that a charity volunteer who had visited detainees to offer support and advice had been tapped for information by the Home Office.

Among numerous examples of neglect and disrespect, the inspectors noted dirty food trolleys, beds without pillows, excessively hot showers, three men held in double cells, long waits in locked vans after overnight drives from other facilities . . .

Who runs Harmondsworth?

Reckoned to be Britain’s most horrible immigration lock-up, Harmondsworth is run for the British government by the GEO Group, America’s second biggest prisons company. In the UK, GEO also runs Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre (in South Lanarkshire) and escorts prisoners and detainees in partnership with the British outsourcing company, Amey.

Who are the GEO Group? What are they like?

Industry insiders speak of the international security industry as one big family. Here’s a little family history.

The GEO Group was spawned by The Wackenhut Corporation, founded by George R Wackenhut. A former FBI agent, Wackenhut started a three-man detective agency in Miami in 1954, providing security services to stay afloat, according to his 2005 obituary in the New York Times.

To impress commercial clients, Wackenhut dressed his guards in helmets and paratrooper boots.

He recruited former members of the CIA, the FBI and elite military forces to join his management team and the company’s board, the New York Times reported.

The Wackenhut Corporation gathered intelligence on individuals, “both to run background checks for their clients and as an outgrowth of George Wackenhut’s anti-communist views”, according to the New York University Digital Archive that holds some of those papers. By 1971 Wackenhut held files on 2.5 million individuals.

The company recruited ex-FBI chief Clarence M. Kelley, ex-Secret Service James J. Rowley, Frank C. Carlucci, former defense secretary and former CIA deputy director, according to the New York Times. William J. Casey was Wackenhut’s outside legal counsel before Ronald Reagan appointed him director of central intelligence. Such connections “fuelled speculation that the company was working with the CIA, a relationship that Mr. Wackenhut denied”.

Well, he would.

In 2002, on George Wackenhut’s retirement, Group 4 Falck bought The Wackenhut Corporation, including a majority stake in its prisons business (the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation). The following year, the prisons business, headed by George Zoley, bought its shares back from Group 4 Falck, and relaunched itself as the GEO Group.

The Wackenhut Corporation remained in Group 4 Falke’s hands as Group 4 merged with Securicor, creating G4S. In 2010 G4S dropped the Wackenhut name (it wasn’t helpful). And The Wackenhut Corporation was born again — as G4S Secure Solutions (USA) Inc.

The GEO Group continues to invest heavily in political lobbying. A 2011 research report (PDF here) by the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute demonstrated how GEO, among other private prison companies, buys influence, promoting policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration.

Two years ago, as if by magic, GEO became a ‘real estate investment trust’. Why would a prisons company call itself a real estate trust? Tax avoidance is the primary motive. GEO celebrated its reincarnation by paying shareholders a special dividend of $350 million. (PDF here).

George ZoleyGeorge Zoley, GEO’s chairman and chief executive officer, took $6 million in pay and perks in 2012, according to Bloomberg. His retirement agreement (here) lands him a $7 million lump sum if he goes this year, aged 64. If he holds out until 71, there’s $9 million coming his way. His shares in GEO Group alone (170,200 of them) are valued, by today’s price, at around $6 million.

Government contracting is, demonstrably, a good thing for GEO Group shareholders and executives. What about prisoners, detainees and the public purse?

A Bloomberg report on private prisons last year (‘Gangs ruled prison as for-profit model put blood on the floor‘) focussed on Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, run by GEO Group from August 2010 until July 2012. Journalists Margaret Newkirk and William Selway reported:

“Staff shortages, mismanagement and lax oversight had long turned it into a cauldron of violence, where female employees had sex with inmates, pitted them against each other, gave them weapons and joined their gangs, according to court records, interviews and a U.S. Justice Department report.”

Responding to criticism, GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said that focusing on troubled institutions such as Walnut Grove “yields an unfair, unbalanced, and inaccurate portrayal of the totality of our industry’s and our company’s long standing record of quality operations and services which have delivered significant savings for taxpayers”.

The reporters noted: “No national data tracks whether the facilities are run as well as public ones, and private-prison lobbyists for years have successfully fought efforts to bring them under federal open-records law.”

Here in Britain, one thing today’s report from the Prisons Inspectorate doesn’t mention is the case of Prince Kwabena Fosu, a 31 year old Ghanaian man who died at Harmondsworth on 30 October 2012. Fellow detainees claimed that GEO guards beat him, stripped him and abandoned him naked in an unheated room. Police said the death was being treated as “non-suspicious”.

From Our Kingdom

Clare Sambrook

Clare Sambrook, novelist and award-winning investigative journalist, edits the Shine a Light project at OurKingdom, the UK arm of openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now.