Yarl's Wood: Report Suggests "Significant" Concerns

29 October 2013, 06:00

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has published a report after an unannounced inspection of the immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire.

Nick Hardwick says Yarl’s Wood had made improvements, with staff working hard to run a safe and decent establishment, though some significant concerns remained.

Yarl’s Wood holds almost 300 detainees, many of whom are single adult women. It also holds a number of adult families and there is a short-term holding facility for adult men on the site. This inspection found that progress had been made, but inspectors were concerned about allegations of abuse.

Following the emergence of more widespread allegations of abuse, inspectors returned to the centre and conducted more than 50 confidential interviews about safety and treatment by staff with randomly selected detainees, using interpreters where needed. Most women again told inspectors that Yarl’s Wood was a largely respectful and safe place. They did not give any account of abuse, but were vulnerable, and said that male staff entering their rooms without knocking made them uncomfortable.

Overall, inspectors were pleased to find that:

* Reception services were good
* Men held in the short-term holding unit were treated well - many were ‘lorry drops’ who had arrived at the centre after long, dangerous journeys and were grateful to be in a safe place
* Most detainees said the establishment was safe and there were very few violent incidents and little victimisation
* Use of force and segregation had decreased since the last inspection
* The high number of women subject to suicide and self-harm prevention procedures were generally well cared for
* The daily ‘individual needs’ meeting focused attention on the most vulnerable and was good practice
* Young people whose age was disputed were generally well looked after until an age assessment could be carried out
* The number of formal complaints had reduced since the last inspection because minor issues were quickly and appropriately sorted out informally
* There was a wide range of activities available
* Solid support was provided by the welfare officer, but he was overstretched; and
visits arrangements were good and detainees had access to the internet and phones to maintain contact with others.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

* Two staff had engaged in sexual activity with a female detainee, which can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population, and these staff had been rightly dismissed;

* The lack of progress of their immigration cases caused women most distress;

* A number of women had been detained for very long periods – one for almost four years;

* Several obviously mentally ill women had been detained before being sectioned and released to a medical facility;

* Pregnant women had been detained without evidence of the exceptional circumstances required to justify this;

* Detainees who had clear trafficking indicators had not been referred to the national trafficking referral mechanism as required; and reports to the Home Office which say if a detainee’s health might be adversely affected by detention, in particular because the detainee alleged they had been tortured, were poorly completed.

Nick Hardwick said:

"Yarl’s Wood has had a troubled past, punctuated by serious disturbances and controversy surrounding the detention of children. This inspection found that the improvements we have noted since the detention of children ended have continued.
Nevertheless, despite the good progress made, improvement continues to be necessary.

Yarl’s Wood still holds detainees in the middle of a distressing and difficult experience and more thought needs to be given to meeting their emotional and practical needs. For the most vulnerable of the women held, the decision to detain itself appears much too casual."

The women's advocacy and influency officer at the Refugee Council Anna Musgrave said: "Some of the findings of this inspection are shocking. Women in immigration detention are extremely vulnerable, with many likely to be victims of gender-based violence, so we're horrified to hear that male officers enter women's rooms without permission.

It's particularly disturbing that officials are not even following current policy and pregnant women are being detained without any clear reason. Pregnant women with insecure immigration status already have high-risk pregnancies and we believe they should not be detained under any circumstances. There is absolutely no excuse for compromising the health and well-being of a mother and her baby.

This report shows that urgent changes are needed at Yarl's Wood to ensure that vulnerable women feel safe and that their dignity is respected.''

John Tolland, Serco's contract director, said: "We are really pleased this inspection report recognises the improvements Serco has made at Yarl's Wood and considers it to be an establishment where residents feel safe and there is little violence.

Our managers and staff have worked hard to establish and maintain good relationships with the residents, who are vulnerable people in the middle of a distressing and difficult experience.

However, we are not complacent. As the HMCIP report says, we need to make further improvements and we are already working closely with the Home Office to implement their recommendations.''