Yarl’s Wood, which holds nearly 400 detainees, is the UK’s most secretive immigration detention centre. It has been plagued by damning accusations about the behaviour of guards since it opened in 2001.
Cameras have never been allowed inside. Even the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was barred entry.
Tonight Channel 4 News will reveal footage shot undercover inside the facility over a period of months. Our investigation reveals:
- Numerous incidents of self-harm
- Questions over standards of healthcare
- Guards showing contempt for detainees
The management of Yarl’s Wood has been outsourced to Serco since 2007. The company has always robustly rebutted allegations of sexual abuse and degrading treatment that have emerged from behind the facility's high fences and barbed wire.
Serco says its focus is ‘decency and respect’ for the ‘residents’ of Yarl’s Wood. The Channel 4 News investigation suggests a different reality for the mostly female detainees. Most of them are failed asylum seekers who have committed no crime.
As a result of the allegations, the Home Office has ordered “thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme” and told Channel 4 News that they “will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response”.
Serco have also said that former barrister Kate Lampard will “carry out an independent review into our work at Yarl's Wood” in response to the investigation. (Lampard was the NHS and Department of Health’s choice to provide independent oversight on the Jimmy Savile investigation).
“We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate”, Serco said.
“They’re all animals”
Staff at Yarl’s Wood are filmed referring to the detention centre’s inmates as “animals”, “beasties” and “bitches”.
“Headbutt the bitch,” one guard says. “I’d beat her up.”
A guard is also filmed saying: “They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?”
Guidance from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) says staff at detention facilities must “promote a respectful and safe environment”.
HMIP says a healthy detention facility is one where: “Staff address women using their preferred name or title and never use insulting nicknames or derogatory or impersonal terms.”
The strain on the staff could increase further as a result of government cuts, as 68 guards will be made redundant at Yarl’s Wood.
Channel 4 News put this to Serco, who said: “the new structure that we are putting in place will provide sufficient operational staff to cater fully for the needs of residents.”
Health care at Yarl’s Wood
Standards of health care at the immigration detention centre are also brought into the spotlight.
Holding pregnant women is one of the most controversial aspects of the government’s detention policy: pregnant women are supposed to be detained only if their removal is imminent.
The investigation heard about a pregnant woman who had collapsed in the facility’s dining hall and was taken to hospital.
A still image from the Channel 4 News investigation
“They said she was bleeding,” one officer says. Later in the conversation another adds: “The technical thing is no concerns were raised.”
Channel 4 News learnt that the woman went back to the hospital the next day and was told she had miscarried her baby. She was sent back to the detention centre.
Early the next morning the woman returned to the Yarl’s Wood healthcare suite, which is sub-contracted to another private company, G4S. She was bleeding, highly distressed and desperate to be sent back to hospital.
Serco documents seen by Channel 4 News say the woman was “spoken to” because she was “refusing to wait her turn” and tried to ring the ambulance service.
G4S told Channel 4 News the woman was offered pain killers and told to come back two hours later to see the doctor. But they could not confirm that appointment took place.
Eventually four hours later, just before midday, she was seen by a visiting midwife, who called an ambulance.
G4S told Channel 4 News: “While this resident's miscarriage was understandably a deeply distressing experience for her personally, she received an excellent standard of clinical care from both G4S medical staff and the pregnancy unit at the local NHS hospital.”
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons guidance says detention facilities must make sure: “pregnant women and those caring for children in prison are fully supported throughout their time at the prison by appropriately trained staff.”
On health care it states the aim that: “Women are cared for by a health service that assesses and meets their health needs while in prison and which promotes continuity of health and social care on release.”
And: “The standard of health service provided is equivalent to that which women could expect to receive elsewhere in the community.”
On February 24 of this year the Home Office Minister Lord Bates told Parliament that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm at Yarl’s Wood in the past two years.
When asked how many “suicides or serious attempts at self-harm” there had been in the centre in the past two years, he said: “the answer is, fortunately, none.”
However, Channel 4 News has obtained figures through the Freedom of Information Act that show there were 74 separate incidents of self-harm requiring medical treatment in 2013 alone.
Above: a still image from the Channel 4 News investigation
The details of these incidents have never been disclosed, but an officer is recorded saying: “They are all slashing their wrists apparently. Let them slash their wrists.”
Another officer asks why the women would self-harm. The first officer responds: “It’s attention seeking.”
Inmates are also reported to have jumped from a stairwell in the detention centre — with one breaking her back.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons says prisons should provide: “a safe and secure environment which reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide.”
It says detention facilities should ensure that: “vulnerable women are identified at an early stage and given the necessary support.”
“Then I jumped”
Channel 4 News interviewed Esther Izigwe who was released from Yarl's Wood at the end of January.
She had suffered years of sexual violence as a teenager in Ghana before fleeing to the UK. Already struggling with depression, she says her mental health deteriorated badly in detention. When guards said they were about to remove her by force to send her home she was desperate.
She says: “I started running then they started chasing me then she was like ‘Esther, please, we need to go’ and I was like ‘I'm not going, I don't want to go’. Then she said ‘you need to go’ and then I stood by the stairs. I said ‘if you come near me I will jump’. And then she still came and then I said ‘one more step I will jump’ and then she still tried to come in and then I jumped.”
“We take all incidents extremely seriously”
In response to the investigation's findings on self-harm in Yarl’s Wood, Serco said: “We work hard to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all the vulnerable people in our care and last year the number of incidents of self-harm decreased. All incidents of self-harm are treated extremely seriously and any resident who self-harms is seen by a nurse, regardless of the severity of the act.”
Serco went on:
“In the last eight years, there have been three occasions when residents attempted to self-harm on stairs. We take all such incidents extremely seriously and on each occasion a thorough review was undertaken and actions taken with the individuals to prevent them repeating attempts at self-harm. As part of these reviews the option of placing nets or barriers was considered but rejected as they would not be effective in preventing acts of self-harm.”
In response to the Channel 4 News claim that there was a lack of empathy among guards for detainees who self-harmed, Serco said: “We expect the highest standards of behaviour from all our staff at all times.The vast majority of our employees consistently meet these standards and I am proud of the work that they do. Nevertheless, we recognise that there are rare occasions when those standards have not been met by a few individuals. This is always unacceptable and when it is proven to have happened we take swift and appropriate disciplinary action.”
In response to the Channel 4 News findings, a Home Office Spokesman said:
“The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance — we will accept nothing but the highest standards from companies employed to manage the detention estate.
“Last month, the Home Secretary commissioned an independent review of detainees’ welfare to be conducted by former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, but these are clearly very serious and disturbing allegations which merit immediate scrutiny.
“Serco has already suspended one member of staff. We expect Serco and G4S to conduct thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme, and we will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response.
“All of our detention centres are part of a regular and rigorous inspection regime operated by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons. Lapses in standards, when they are identified, are dealt with swiftly and effectively.
“A sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system — including for those we are removing from the UK.”
In response to the investigation as a whole, Serco said: “We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate.
“We work hard to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are maintained at Yarl’s Wood and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has found the Centre to be a safe and respectful place.
“We are conscious that we are working in a particularly challenging environment at Yarl's Wood, looking after 300 women detained during the final stages of their removal proceedings.
“The public will want to be confident that Yarl's Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity.
“Accordingly, we have asked Kate Lampard, who has immense experience and credibility, to carry out an independent review into our work at Yarl's Wood.”
Full details of the investigation will be released on Channel 4 News on Monday at 7pm. The investigation was undertaken by Channel 4 News and producer Lee Sorrell. This report, republished by permission, first appeared on the Channel 4 News site, headlined, "Yarl's Wood: undercover in the secretive immigration centre".