Close Yarl’s Wood and all immigration prisons

Yarl’s Wood immigration prison opened in November 2001. It cost £80-100 million to build, and was planned to hold 900 men, women and children awaiting deportation, making it the largest immigration detention centre in Europe.

As soon as the centre opened, detainees began to protest about lack of medical treatment and access to telephones, poor food, and arbitrary handcuffing. There were a series of protests and hunger strikes, culminating on 14 February 2002 in a protest during which a fire spread rapidly through the centre and it quickly became apparent that the prison, whilst equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and anti-escape equipment, did not have a sprinkler system. To make matters worse, it took an hour for the guards from Group 4 (the private security firm then running the centre) to allow the Fire Brigade access to tackle the blaze.

The protest and fire were followed by four different inquiries by Bedfordshire Council, Bedfordshire police, Group 4 and the Home Office (later taken over by the Prisons Ombudsman), all of whom appeared to be mainly motivated by blaming one another. However, all parties were unanimous in their condemnation of the detainees. In a statement to Parliament on 25 February 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett said: ‘I am not prepared to let government policy be determined by those intent on creating disorder and destruction. Having removed asylum seekers from prison, we now find that our reward is the burning down of a substantial part of the facility. This is deplorable... It is now clear that a small number of people will take any step to prevent their removal from this country. We therefore have no option but to toughen the regime and instruct the immigration and nationality directorate further to speed up removal of those in the centres to their country of origin.’

Despite the plethora of inquiries, many detainees who could have given evidence to them and the subsequent criminal trials were deported before they had a chance to do so. Thirteen men were charged with arson, violent disorder and assault. After a four-month trial in 2003 two were found guilty of violent disorder and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Another two had already pleaded guilty to minor charges. The remainder were acquitted, despite Group 4 hiring professional coaches to train its witnesses in presenting their evidence. In time-honoured fashion, the British state exacted revenge on those the criminal court declared innocent by re-arresting them under immigration law.

Soon after the trial, Yarl’s Wood, which had continued to hold a small number of detainees in parts of the centre unaffected by the fire, was officially reopened to house single women and families. It currently holds around 400 such prisoners, including babies. There have been repeated protests and hunger strikes, and the centre has been strongly criticised in reports by the Children’s Commissioner and Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Nicki Jameson

FRFI 210 August / September 2009


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