Nick Hardwick says in a report published on Thursday that too little attention is being paid to the “uniquely isolated and uncertain position” of the detainees, who are being held in a “legal limbo” without being charged or facing trial.
Two of the men have been held for more than 11 years pending their deportation or extradition. There were seven men being held in the special detainees’ unit at the time of the inspector’s unannounced visit to Long Lartin in April.
The group include international terror suspects who are being held under immigration or extradition law. They are believed to include Omar Othman — better known as Abu Qatada — who has been accused of being one of Osama bin Laden’s chief associates in Europe.
The longest-detained British citizen is believed to be Babar Ahmad, who has been held for seven years while fighting his extradition to the US. Three others in the unit are also fighting extradition to America.
The chief inspector said that prison inspectors had previously raised concerns about holding this small group of detainees “who already inhabit a kind of legal limbo”, in a severely restricted environment for a potentially indefinite period.
“We were concerned to find that the detainees were no longer able to mix with the wider prison population,” said Hardwick. “These restrictions had apparently been made on security grounds, although the rationale appeared obscure as sentenced terrorists faced no such restriction in the main prison and not all detainees posed the same level of risk.”
The chief inspector said that Long Lartin’s governor had recently made some attempt to mitigate their isolation. But the terror suspects had rejected as “stigmatising” his offer to mix with the other segregated “vulnerable prisoners” who can include sex offenders, informers and others at risk of attack from other inmates. Hardwick says the situation needs to be reviewed as the ban on mixing with the main prison population is not based on individual risk assessments.
The report also voices concerns about extra restrictions that had been imposed on movements around the unit and on their regime. For example the central courtyard gate was now locked and only opened on request. It says that the Long Lartin detainee unit, which can hold up to 19 prisoners, operates as a “prison within a high security prison” and is clean but basic. It opened in 2005. Detainees reported they felt safe and relations with staff were polite and professional.
“The prison service needs to ensure a better balance is struck between security and humane care, and between separation and integration,” said Hardwick.
Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said there was an inevitable balance to be struck between legitimate legitimate security concerns and integration with the general population at Long Lartin: “The governor will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the right balance is maintained.”
He added that the small population, their lengthy stays and the inevitable restrictions meant the detainee unit was challenging for staff to run.