UK detention centre slammed after 84-year-old Canadian dies in handcuffs

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A British police officer stands guard outside Harmondsworth detention centre in west London in July 2004. A report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons reveals a Canadian man died there last year after being declared unfit for detention and in need of 'social care.'

A furor has erupted in Britain over the treatment of an 84-year-old Canadian man who suffered from dementia and died in handcuffs at a privately-run immigration detention centre.

The man, who news reports have identified as Alois Dvorzac, was detained last January at Gatwick Airport while on his way to visit his estranged daughter in Slovenia after being deemed inadmissible to Britain, the Globe and Mail reports.

Dvorzac, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and heart problems, was sent to the Harmondsworth immigration centre to await deportation back to Canada. But his return was delayed because his frail health. Two weeks later he was dead.

The story of Dvorzac's treatment was revealed this week in a report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, which conducted an unannounced inspection of Harmondsworth last summer.

Harmondsworth, which houses about 600 detainees, has been a past focus of criticism and official scrutiny. It's run by GEO Group U.K., the British arm of an international correctional-services firm.

"When we last inspected Harmondsworth we found an IRC that was working hard to sustain improvements after the opening of a significant amount of new accommodation," the report said. "This report is more mixed.

"The evidence suggested to us that improvement had slowed and that some outcomes had clearly deteriorated, notably in safety. A major concern is an inadequate focus on the needs of the most vulnerable detainees, including elderly and sick men, those at risk of self harm through food refusal, and other people whose physical or mental health conditions made them potentially unfit for detention."

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The inspector's report also found evidence of overcrowding at Harmondsworth, as well as a lack of engagement by staff with detainees.

The report doesn't identify Dvorzac by name nor say why he was initially detained last Jan. 23. He was hospitalized at first but later taken to Harmondsworth, where a week later a doctor declared him unfit for either detention or deportation. Instead, he needed "social care," the doctor's "Rule 35" report said.

"The caseworker had failed to respond to the Rule 35 report on time and had to be chased twice before he had replied on 5 February, acknowledging the man’s vulnerability and lack of contacts in the UK," the report said.

An attempt to put him on a plane back to Canada the following day had to be called off after a doctor declared him unfit to fly, the report said. He was sent back to Harmondsworth and shuttled back and forth to hospital before dying Feb. 10 during one of these transfers.

"He had been in handcuffs for approximately five hours when he died, still wearing them," the report said.

The report criticized the use of cuffs on someone like Dvorzac, who was clearly at no risk of escaping.

"Only after his heart had stopped and cardiopulmonary resuscitation started were the handcuffs removed," said the report, adding the case was the subject of a separate probe by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

The report also pointed to the case of a dying man sedated and undergoing an angioplasty in hospital. The restraints were removed only seven hours before his death. In another case, a detainee confined to a wheelchair because of a stroke was handcuffed "for no obvious reason" while being taken to hospital.

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An official told the Globe the Canadian High Commission in London was not informed of Dvorzac's case until after he died, apparently because his passport listed a former caregiver as his next of kin.

British Immigration Minister Mark Harper slammed the "completely unjustified" use of retraints, the Telegraph reported.

“Clearly, performance by the contractor running Harmondsworth has been below the high standard expected," the minister said.

“This report makes a number of recommendations that we will be taking forward and I expect to see significant improvement. We will be scrutinising our contractor’s performance closely.”

Harmondsworth's conditions made news last year when asylum-seeker Isa Muazu was deported despite being close to death after a 90-day hunger strike, reported.

"Have the authorities responsible for Harmondsworth forgotten the basic principles of humanity and decency that must apply to any form of custody?" asked Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust.

A spokesman for GEO said detainees were handcuffed only when there was "a documented risk of absconding," and that use of restraints was balanced against other factors, including age.