The Ministry of Justice is considering plans to convert Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) The Verne into an immigration removal centre (IRC), Corporate Watch has found. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) awarded three contracts during August – worth almost £200,000 – for designers to “re-role” the jail into a detention centre; where asylum-seekers and other migrants could be held indefinitely pending deportation. The MoJ insisted to Corporate Watch that, “no decisions have been taken about HMP The Verne”, but these contracts suggests another IRC is in the pipeline.
The prison currently has 600 inmates, 45% of whom are foreign nationals.  The Verne is located on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, which is connected to the mainland town of Weymouth (the 2012 Olympic sailing venue) by a narrow causeway.
The Verne prison is part of a 19th century citadel, dug into a hillside with an access tunnel. Last year, construction giant Kier Group Plc were awarded an MoJ contract worth nearly two million pounds for “Stabilisation of Embankment and Tunnel”. These structural repairs could indicate a longer-term state commitment to keep The Verne facility functioning in some capacity.
The three latest MoJ contracts for HMP The Verne, described only as “re-role immigration centre”, are as follows:
Corporate Watch located all these contracts through the government’s online ‘contract finder’ database. However, Andy Taylor, Director of Cost Consultancy at Sweett Group, told Corporate Watch that they could not discuss details of the contract without authorisation from the MoJ. Aedas and Faithful & Gould were not available for comment.
An MoJ spokesperson told Corporate Watch that, “The National Offender Management Service and the Home Office are working together to ensure that there is sufficient prison and detention capacity for foreign national prisoners and immigration detainees. As part of that, the two organisations are looking at where such offenders are currently held and possible future arrangements. No decisions have been taken about HMP The Verne.”
The potential development was reported in the local paper, Dorset Echo, back in May, before the contracts were awarded. At that time, The Verne “was under threat of closure but has been identified as a suitable site for a detention centre…If the move is agreed, prisoners would be transferred to other sites and the Verne would close for a few months towards the end of this year while work is undertaken to make it suitable before it is reopened in early 2014.”
If the Verne is converted, it would bring the number of IRC’s in the UK to eleven. Three are currently operated by the prison service, with the other seven run by private security giants G4S, Serco, Geo and Mitie. Corporate Watch published a case study about one particular IRC, Yarl’s Wood, titled “Immigration Prisons: Brutal, Unlawful and Profitable”.
The Detention Forum, an NGO network critical of immigration detention, have already written an open letter to the Justice Minister, stating that it is “alarmed to learn that the Ministry of Justice is considering a proposal to convert the prison into a new immigration removal centre”.
The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) is concerned about the expansion of immigration detention. If The Verne is converted, it will bring the number of detention spaces to 5,000: 4,000 in IRCs and 1,000 in prisons. Ali McGinley, Director of AVID and one of the signatories to the letter told Corporate Watch that “This latest proposal has been put forward without any considered analysis of the detention system in the UK, which has been criticised internationally, most recently by the UN Committee against Torture. There is a real need for greater scrutiny of the detention system, which deprives many thousands of migrants of their liberty every year.”
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Please contact Corporate Watch if you have more information about the future of HMP Verne: contact[at]corporatewatch.org