Staff on deportation flights played ‘Russian roulette’ with lives
Whistleblowers’ dossier claims concerns over restraint techniques used by G4S staff were ignored for years
Paul Lewis and Matthew Taylor
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 February 2011 20.45 GMT
The Guardian has obtained a training video used by Securicor – now G4S – to instruct guards deporting asylum seekers on flights. The footage forms part of a dossier of evidence produced by G4S whistleblowers Link to this video
The inaugural flight to Afghanistan should have been a showcase for a multinational company vying for the lucrative contract to deport foreign nationals on behalf of the British government.
The plane heading to Kabul on 26 January 2004 had been chartered by a company that would go on to become part of the world’s largest private security firm – G4S. Its cargo included refused asylum seekers in handcuffs. A number had their legs bound with tape and had been placed in the first-class cabin.
But according to new evidence some of the guards on that flight, recruited to supervise the deportation, had not completed a full training course, and they included a number of inexperienced prison staff. Some had not even received Home Office accreditation.
Shocking details about that flight and dozens more are contained in previously unseen evidence to parliament obtained by the Guardian. The documents reveal how G4S employees spent several years raising concerns about the potentially lethal methods being used on refused asylum seekers.
The most disturbing technique involved bending deportees over in their seats and placing their head between their legs. The procedure became known within the company as “carpet karaoke” because it would force detainees, struggling for breath, to shout downwards toward the floor.
Although an apparently successful method of keeping disruptive detainees quiet, it can lead to a form of suffocation known as positional asphyxia.
Its alleged use is documented in written testimony by four G4S whistleblowers, submitted to the home affairs select committee in the aftermath of the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan who died on a British Airways flight from Heathrow in October last year.
The cause of Mubenga’s death remains unknown. Passengers on BA flight 77 reported seeing three guards heavily restraining the 46-year-old, who they said had been bent over and complained of breathing difficulties before his collapse. Police later arrested the guards in connection with the death and recently extended their bail until next month.
All four whistleblowers have registered personal grievances against G4S, including some that have been settled out of court. Some are understood to have been themselves accused of inappropriate behaviour or later barred from conveying their concerns to the press.
However, they now accuse G4S managers of presiding over a “macho” corporate culture that ostracised staff who showed compassion towards detainees or questioned the safety of their treatment.
One of the whistleblowers, the company’s serving charter operations manager, concedes that his detailed dossier to parliament is likely to result in his dismissal.
The dossier records how he repeatedly wrote to his seniors expressing concerns, including one letter in which he stated that some G4S employees were playing “Russian roulette with detainees’ lives”.
Private companies were first contracted to oversee removals of refused asylum seekers after the death in 1993 of Joy Gardner, an illegal immigrant who died during a struggle with police who had come to collect her at her home. It was more than a decade later, in 2004, that the security firm Securicor took on a small number of chartered flights to Afghanistan, Romania and Kosovo.
From the outset, the training is said to have lacked sufficient first-aid instruction and emphasised “pain compliance” techniques. It was initially aided by a training video inherited from a rival company which lasted just over six minutes and showed guards bundling a detainee into an aircraft.
The video, which was later phased out, is included in the dossier of evidence submitted to parliament by the G4S whistleblowers as an example of the inappropriate training they received.
In 2004 Securicor merged with Group 4 Falck to form the company now known as G4S. It won a five-year contract to oversee the vast majority of all overseas removals for the Home Office, beginning in 2005. G4S said that following the merger there was a “thorough” review of material used to train staff. “Since then all employees on the contract have received annual refresher training in the appropriate and approved techniques,” it said.
But it would take months, and in some cases years, for some G4S guards to receive official Home Office accreditation, according to the evidence submitted to MPs, which also points to severe delays in the reform of training.
Lacking any official identification to show foreign customs officials, some guards are understood to have had badges made in a trophy shop.
The whistleblower testimony reveals repeated complaints to the company about the standard of training for guards, some of whom are said to have been allowed to take part in removal flights without having undertaken full “control and restraint” training.
The first documented complaint from a guard was made in July 2004, five months after the company’s inaugural flight to Kabul. It stated guards had not been trained properly, lacked any formal certification and were using handcuffs in a potentially illegal manner.
The evidence submitted to MPs suggests the complaint, along with several others made over a six-year period, was largely ignored by G4S managers who contrived to “discredit, harass, bully and on occasions dismiss” staff who spoke out. One whistleblower describes “a deliberate culture of mismanagement and cover-up” during the company’s first four years of conducting overseas removals.
By the summer of 2005, some guards were evidently becoming increasingly concerned about the ad-hoc techniques developed to restrain non-compliant detainees.
“I raised a huge concern about detainees’ heads being pushed down below the chest line,” explained a G4S training instructor who left the firm in 2008. “Unfortunately I witnessed on a number of occasions staff using this technique as soon as a detainee became disruptive.”
Around this time one guard felt compelled to write to his manager, warning training had to change “before there was a serious positional asphyxiation incident resulting in a detainee’s death”.
Meetings then appear to have been held with the senior staff, at which concerns were raised that recruits were learning “unofficial methods”, including “striking a detainee regardless of circumstances” and “folding a detainee with a seat-belt tightened”.
The following year, G4S received a circular from the Home Office, which had become aware of similar complaints. A Home Office official had boarded a G4S deportation flight and witnessed guards pushing a disruptive detainee’s head on to the headrest in front.
“Advice is that holding detainees in this manner could restrict airways and potentially result in positional asphyxia,” he wrote. The letter is believed to have been pinned up in the G4S staff canteen. Just three months later, and despite the Home Office warning, a guard again raised his concerns.
He said he had repeatedly alerted seniors over a period of two years, but his warnings had failed to put an “immediate stop to potentially lethal techniques”. His fear, he said, was “the inevitable death of a detainee”.
“The overriding problem is that this technique is still being used by some team leaders to force their charges into quiet submission,” he wrote in the June 2006 letter. “I urge you meet this problem head on before the worst happens.”
Frustrated that their complaints were not being listened to, by the end of 2007 some G4S guards took to writing to police, a local MP and the Home Office. During a Home Office audit of training in 2007, officials received a letter from a G4S guard. She specifically warned of the dangers of positional asphyxia through the “deliberate folding over of handcuffed and verbally unco-operative detainees”, something she said she had witnessed “several times”.
Several former G4S guards have independently told the Guardian the reason deportees were subjected to “carpet karaoke” was because in effect there was a financial inducement to keep them quiet. Refused asylum seekers often caused violent commotions when boarding aircraft, particularly on commercial flights, in the knowledge that a pilot would often refuse to fly with disruptive passengers. The guards were desperate to avoid an aborted flight because their pay would be cut. (See Cameron Duodu’s comment:http://cameronduodu.com/uncategorized/police-may-charge-company-over-agolan-deportees-death-on-plane)
According to the whistleblowers, G4S introduced a payment structure for guards that meant they were paid far less if long-haul flights were aborted. They argue the result was a built-in incentive for guards to forcefully silence deportees to ensure aircraft took off. As one whistleblower put it, an aborted flight would have “a serious financial impact, not only for the company but also to individual officers … this can be a very potent incentive to cut corners if you are so minded.”
Amid mounting complaints from deportees as well as its own staff, G4S is understood to have conducted a contract-wide audit of its training in early 2008. Improved courses were introduced for new recruits that summer.
But the company’s own training staff do not appear to have been satisfied with the new regime.
Parliament has received evidence from one whistleblower who says that until recently they co-ordinated training for 1,200 G4S staff. Officials in charge of training had repeatedly expressed the need to re-create the confined space of an aircraft when training guards to control disruptive deportees, she said.
“Consideration was given to hiring Virgin Atlantic’s flight simulator, however this was disregarded on price,” she added. Another proposal – involving decommissioned aircraft seats – was also not realised. She told the Guardian training was still taking place on ordinary office chairs assembled in an office when she left G4S four months ago.
The week after she left the company, senior G4S executives were summoned before the home affairs select committee to explain their procedures in the wake of Mubenga’s death. David Banks, group managing director for G4S, denied there was a remuneration structure that incentivised removals. He was asked by the committee chair, Keith Vaz, if his staff had ever complained about “any aspects of the removal process”. He replied: “I’m certainly not aware of any, no.”
G4S said in a statement that it was aware allegations have been made to the home affairs select committee. “We have requested details, but we haven’t yet received any information and so we’re not in a position to respond further at this time.
“We would obviously be keen to investigate these allegations but will not be able to conduct a review or take any action without seeing the evidence.”
It said allegations of mistreatment are taken “extremely seriously”. “We investigate any allegations presented to us and where the conduct of staff has been inappropriate, we take the appropriate disciplinary action.”
A guard’s diary
In her evidence to parliament, one G4S guard, a 51-year-old ex-police officer, disclosed entries from her diary.
3 May 2004
Virgin Flight 601, Heathrow to Johannesburg. Removal of mother and her four-year-old daughter
“… without warning [team leader] dragged detainee [who had been calmly sat down] to her feet and pulled us through some swing doors into a small foyer area out of sight of aircrew, ground crew and passengers. In here he pulled detainee and me to the ground and proceeded to tie her legs together with two pairs of restraints, of a kind I only ever saw him use. In doing so he rested his whole weight across detainee’s upper body, which as I later learned carries with it a risk of causing positional asphyxia … the flight passed off without incident, but on approach to Johannesburg detainee kept trying to unfasten seatbelt, and told child to do the same. Child was sitting in row in front with [another guard], who prevented her from doing so by first pulling the belt tight and then actually sitting on the little girl.”
23 June 2004
KLM Flight KL 1000, Heathrow to Amsterdam. Removal of a woman
“Detainee collected from Tinsley House at 0300hrs. Became disruptive when being taken on to aircraft, taking off wraparound skirt, shouting and struggling to get out of seat … team leader was holding belt tight, passed over the handcuffs, thus forcing them into detainee’s lap/abdomen … team leader took hold of back of detainee’s neck and forced her head forward towards her lap, trapping my arm between her chest and her lap. I told the team leader to let her up and after a while he did so, pushing her down again after a few seconds. I again remonstrated and team leader let detainee up again for a few seconds before forcing her head forward again. On this occasion I heard detainee say that she could not breathe and I again told the team leader to let her up.”
7 December 2004
Transfer of Kosovan family of nine to Tinsley House detention centre, pending extradition to Germany
“One of the remaining children, a 15-year-old girl, had been handcuffed by police during the course of the detention … an 18-year-old was processed first. She became very disruptive when asked to remove her shoes, as a result of which she was handcuffed and then, when in the car, placed in leg restraints …
“She continued to be very disruptive, and a number of [control and restraint] techniques were employed by [senior guard] to restrain her … included use of the mandibular angle pressure point, and the nose distraction, which at the time was still an approved technique …
“Having delivered the family to Tinsley House we returned to our base to complete our use of force reports. This I did, including reference leg restraints, but was ordered to destroy and rewrite the report, omitting mention of this, as their use had not been authorised.”