Monday, 13 June 2011

In UK, are detention centres blocking access to gay websites?

By Paul Canning

Some months ago we received reports from detainees in British immigration detention centres that among those websites they could not access were gay websites.

They said that there were numerous other sites which are blocked including ones with multimedia content, such as YouTube, and Facebook. Other reports suggest that some websites which support asylum seekers are also blocked, including the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns blog.

Last week the government specifically named detention centres in a list of places it wanted to see blocking access to 'extremist websites'.

Internet access is supposed to, according to the Home Office, allow detainees to be able to stay in touch with friends and family and legal advisors, be able to do research to support their asylum claims and "to be able to prepare them from (sic) removal". It was provided following the advice of the Prisons Ombudsman however it is only available in those centres run by contractors and is not available in those run by HM prison service, such as the Dover detainees centre.

MP Julian Huppert wrote to UKBA following my request to ask about their policy. Their response confirms that contractors allow internet access according to UKBA technical guidance "designed to minimise any risk to the safety and security of the centre and to ensure that detainees are not exposed to offensive and innapropriate material".

It is almost certainly the latter catch-all ('offensive material') that results in blocking of gay websites and this is likely due to 'over-blocking', that is category selection using internet filter software which then results in LGBT content being blocked. This is often seen in other institutional settings such as schools and libraries and would almost certainly be contrary to equalities legislation - if that applied in detention centres.

The UKBA response by Alan Kittle, Director, Detention Services, says that a detainee can ask for a site to be unblocked and this (my emphasis) 'may be taken forward for them'.

We have written back to suggest that the guidance to detention centres make clear that gay websites are not 'offensive', must not be blocked and must not be unblocked only at the discretion of individual detention centre staff - as the current policy suggests
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