As early as 2003, Yarls Wood was found to be "not safe".
After G4S quit the detention centre business in the wake of revelations of abuse, you would think that detainees would be breathing a sigh of relief.
But no – when G4S’s contract to run Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres runs out in May, they will be taken over by another outsourcing firm which has allowed abuse in its detention centres.
In its infinite wisdom, the Home Office has awarded the contract to Serco, who currently run the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention centre for women in Bedfordshire.
Abuse has been common at the centre since it was set up nearly 20 years ago. As early as 2003, the Inspector of Prisons found the centre was “not safe”.
A few years later, the Children’s Commissioner found that children at the centre were denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm.
And in 2013, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Harwick described it as a “sad place”. He said that, at best, it “represents the failure of hopes and ambitions, at worst it is a place where some detainees look to the future with real fear and concern.”
Hardwick added that women who showed clear signs of having been trafficked had not been recognised as victims. Pregnant women and those with severe mental health problems had also been detained too casually.
In 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women was denied permission to visit Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office. In 2017, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott was also denied access.
Media access to the centre has also been severely limited. But in 2015, a Channel 4 reporter went undercover and discovered that staff at the centre were physically, verbally and sexually abusing the women detained.
Comments recored by an undercover reporter include “they’re all animals”, “should have headbutted the bitch” and “they’re all bastards”.
One former detainee Esther Azigwe said she felt like an “animal” and a “prisoner”, despite having committed no crime.
In the same year, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons backed up Channel 4’s claims, finding that “Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women”.
In 2016, detainees hung a banner from the detention centre window which read: “Yarl’s Wood officers in relations with vulnerable detainees”.
In a later case, a judge ruled that a detained woman had used reasonable force when resisiting a violent deportation attempt against her.
The 48-year old woman said she was attacked by 11 guards who put a blanket over her head. She suffered scarring to her arms and legs and neck pain and now lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she could not breathe and feared that she would die and resisted the deportation because she had been told she would not be deported. Her deportation was cancelled later that same day.
Most of the women detained in Yarl’s Wood are subsquently released rather than deported. This raises the question of why they are detained in the first place as they have committed no crimes. Some have been detained for up to two years.
The imigration minister Kevin Foster claims giving Brook House and Tinsley House to Serco will “significantly improve the day-to-day lives of detainees”. If the company’s past record is anything to go by though, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward
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