Captive phone market at Tinsley House

Detainees at Tinsley House, near Gatwick, are having their mobile phones confiscated on arrival, and are being forced to rely on a network which allows monitoring – and costs them more for essential calls.
IMMIGRATION detainees are highly dependent on their mobile phones for contact with the outside world, including their legal representatives, family members and where necessary, organisations such as the Samaritans, their MPs and the media. But this is all set to change if a pilot currently being run at Tinsley House is extended.

Global Comms & Consulting Ltd (GCC), which (according to Corporate Watch)[1] specialises in secure telecommunications services to major government agencies and multinational companies, has been given a contract to install and run a new telecoms network at the centre. The way it operates is that on reception, detainees’ mobile phones are confiscated, and they are given a standard phone and a card with £2.50 credit on it, which they can top up in units of 60p. GCC boss Martin Crook assured IRR News that the costs of charges reflect pay-as-you-go mobile rates, at 10p a minute for domestic and 23p a minute for international calls. But there are concerns about the pricing structure – in particular, that 0800 and 0845 numbers, which were free from landlines installed at the detention centre, will now be charged for (the landlines at the centre were removed some time ago). This defeats the object of many support organisations which provide these numbers so that those who need them can use them freely. Worse, although other phone cards can be used, there is an access charge of 25p a minute. This is really bad news for support groups who give detainees cards to enable them to make cheap or free calls.

But while GCC stand to make a tidy (although not, as we were assured, extortionate) profit, the main purpose of the contract, it appears, is not profit but control. The scheme is a response to the Oakington disturbances in 2010, when detainees called media organisations to alert them to what was happening in the centre. In future, with all detainees sharing the same network, the destination of calls can be monitored and the plug can be pulled if the authorities deem it appropriate, leaving detainees incommunicado, with no contact to the outside world at all.

The ability of staff to monitor calls under the new system (although Mr Crook assured us that they would not be permitted to listen in) is extremely worrying. But, given the allegations of brutality and racism which have so frequently been made about immigration detention centres, including claims that detainees were locked in as staff fled during the Yarl’s Wood fire in 2002 and that women on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood in 2010 were made to stand for hours and denied necessary treatment, the fact that G4S or Serco or UKBA will be able to cut off the phones altogether is frankly terrifying.

There is speculation over whether a legal challenge to the new regime will be launched; UKBA’s own Detention Service Order, still in force, allows detainees mobile phones – implicit in this is that they can retain their own phones.[2] But detainees at Tinsley House have already made their feelings known in a protest this week over the inflated costs of calls.

[1] Corporate Watch, ‘New detention phone system to keep detainees under control’, 6 April 2011. [2] DSO 03/10, ‘Mobile phones and cameras in IRCs’, download a copy here (pdf file, 68kb).
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.