Earlier this year, for seven weeks the investigative reporter Nik Sommerlad was given the job of a security officer at the UK?s controversial ?Yarl?s Wood Detention Centre? for asylum seekers, in Bedfordshire. The brutal, racist, and violent nature of the regime that he saw on his assignment is a damning indictment of the UK Government’s human rights policy, and its public claim that it provides a “safe and caring” environment for those claiming refugee status in the country.
Yarl?s Wood, reopened recently after it was burned down during riots by detainees last year, who were protesting against conditions at the centre, and the length of the process dealing with their claims for asylum. The detention centre is run by the private security organisation, ?Group 4?, which has been criticised heavily in the past for both negligent security procedures, and the behaviour of some of its guards.
A group trial of eleven inmates for their alleged role in the riots ended with all of them being cleared of arson, and all but four were found innocent of the lesser offences of affray and violent disorder. At the time of the riot, however, Home Secretary David Blunkett warned that he had “no option but to toughen the regime.”
Yarl?s Wood holds asylum seekers deemed unsuccessful, and other immigrants awaiting deportation. However, according to UK law, its detainees could at some point still be granted refugee status by the courts, or given temporary admission to Britain while their claims for refugee status are decided. About 120 staff work at the detention centre, which holds mostly women, but is planned to house 400 men, women and children by 2005.
They are fearful women asylum seekers whose search for a safe haven has failed - but to their guards they are the “scum of the scum”. A senior security officer did not hide his racist contempt for those in his “care”. He told me: “The Indians and Pakis are alright, but Jamaicans are drug-dealing pieces of shit; Algerians are the slimiest bastards in the world - all of them - they’re all terrorists, the ones we get anyway; and the Chinese are evil little bastards.” Others called the 60 female detainees “bitches” and “scrubbers”.
Yarl’s Wood is the last chance saloon for failed asylum seekers before most are returned to the homeland they were desperate to flee. Some may be genuine victims of a miscarriage of justice, suicidal at the thought of what awaits them after they are deported. Others may well be liars caught out before they vanish into the community. But all deserve to be treated with dignity.
Nik Sommerlad is pictured here at the gates of the detention centre.
Sadly some staff seem to have taken Home Secretary David Blunkett at his word when he pledged to toughen the regime following last year’s riot by inmates. Members of racist groups are barred from working at the centre. But a British National Party [UK fascists] candidate was given a job there for a few months in 2001, and opinions I heard would not have been out of place at a far-right rally.
One officer said of the women detainees bluntly: “They’re bitches in here. They’re here for a reason.” Another, referring to Nigerian women, said: “They’re very religious, calling you ‘sir’. That’s all right, it’s showing some respect. They dress up on Sunday in their hats and everything to go to church. Then they go back to being the useless scrubbers they are.” On another occasion I was told: “We have to watch out for incest. It’s part of their culture. They’ll stick it up anything.”
Yarl’s Wood is run by the heavily criticised Group 4 security firm which boasts it has been “recognised by the Home Office for leadership in implementation of the Human Rights Act”. Advertising for new recruits, the company says: “The ability to communicate well and to establish positive relationships with people from many nationalities, faiths and cultures is an essential part of this interesting and varied job. Although there can be a language barrier, bridges can be built with a simple smile.”
There was not much sign of bridge building in my seven weeks of undercover training as a Detention Custody Officer. In training sessions on cultural diversity, bullying, race relations and child protection one officer said: “Your two favourite letters of the alphabet when you’re working will be RD - removals directions. That means the bastard is off. Your least favourite will be TA - temporary admission. That means let the fuckers out. It happens all the time and always to the pieces of shit.”
During another session on human rights, trainees were subjected to a right wing rant. They were told: “Now they (asylum seekers) are rowing over in dinghies. Sink them, that’s what the Navy should be doing ? I’m afraid we’re softly, softly. We used to be a hard nation. People used to be afraid of us … There’s a study that in 25 years whites will be in the minority. English won’t be the first language. We’re losing our culture because we’re soft, because we signed up to the Human Rights Act.”
It was astonishing that staff felt free to use such poisonous language. It was even more disturbing that no one challenged them. Far from sympathising with the detainees’ plight, one recruit declared: “The ones who come here and don’t stop crying really piss me off. I’m like ‘Shut up!’ They only do it to get attention.” There was not a murmur of dissent from other trainees. One agreed, and added: “Crocodile tears.” Horrified by such talk, a black colleague confided: “There are racists here. I can’t see why management don’t do something about it.”
Fleeing persecution or acute poverty, after travelling for thousands of miles in difficult circumstances, many face imprisonment when they arrive in the UK.
Mr Blunkett insists Yarl’s Wood is not a prison. However it is run by a former prison governor. Staff are trained as if they were jail officers and prison service “control and restraint” techniques are taught. The regime is strict. Trainees were told: “No mollycoddling. At 7am it’s ‘Bang, bang, get up!’ You want them up and tiring themselves out. It’s good for the centre. Don’t let them sleep all day. Talk to them, annoy them, knacker them out. It’s the best way.”
Many of the people here are desperate and confused, yearning for some sign of human kindness. But I was trained to avoid sympathising with inmates and to disbelieve their horrifying stories of hardship and torture. I was warned: “Don’t befriend them. Other officers will turn on you. You’re not here for that. If you want to, join the visiting committee. Get out of the job and join the ‘tree-huggers’.”
An immigration officer who works for the Home Office told new recruits: “If they’re in here it’s almost certain that their case has been looked at and refused. A story that you’re told by one of the detainees may seem very convincing. Don’t get involved. The initial things you hear sound terrible. But they don’t stand up. Unfortunately many people do break the rules when they come here. If they’ve been prepared to break the law, then telling a lie is nothing.”
At first sight, the centre looks like a travel lodge motel. There are facilities, including a library, gym, shop and lessons in English, maths and computing skills. The razor wire and CCTV cameras spell a different message. During my training I heard countless stories of violent and intimidating inmates. But I found the detainees - mostly women in their 20s - were subdued and timid. All were depressed, some were suicidal.
While I was at the centre a Jamaican women tried to hang herself. An African girl stayed in her room banging her head against the wall, crying: “Just let me die.”
The Home Office fines Group 4 ?10,000 for each suicide. As a result, detainees thought to be at risk are liable to be strip-searched and placed in “removal from association” areas where they are kept from other inmates.
In “suicide awareness” training, I was told: “They’re cunning. Some keep razor blades in their mouths. We had one who swallowed a blade broken off a disposable razor, passed it out and used it. If they ask for a pen to write a letter, watch them. Some break the pen and use that to cut themselves. Those people that want to do it will do anything.”
Suicidal detainees are checked at regular intervals. Recruits are told to look round their door, give them a phone call or even - as a cruel joke - tell them they have a letter. A staff member said: “They’ll soon come skipping down the corridor. Once you see they’re still alive you can just say ‘Nah’ - it all saves time.”
Imprisoned in a cruel institution by the UK?s asylum system, refugees bear the scars of brutality, racism, and violence.
Not all staff are so callous. Some sympathise with the inmates and are unhappy with the ways detainees are branded disruptive. One told me: “It’s not just for shouting or being violent. If at the end of a six-hour asylum meeting they say ‘You fucking bastards,’ then that’s considered to be disruptive. I don’t think that’s right.”
The Government has dropped its target of sending 30,000 failed applicants home every year. But more and more cases are being turned down and more hopefuls than ever are being returned to the last place they want to be - their homeland.
Tragically, there is evidence of people being wrongly detained. I was told of one man brought in by accident. He had lived in Scotland for 25 years, was “very well-educated”, had his own business and was married with children. Despite having a British passport he was picked up at an airport coming back from a wedding and taken to Yarl’s Wood. He was released when the blunder was uncovered.
I was also told of a Polish man, married with children, who had been living in Britain for 15 years before he was plucked from his home and taken to the centre. An officer told me: “His wife found out he was having an affair and reported him. So he was picked up and ended up in here. There are a few of them like that. Generally a friend or someone they know has reported them.”
I also heard tales of disturbed inmates who should have been receiving mental care instead of being held in detention. One Iranian man used an iron to burn himself. A colleague explained: “He had ironed his arms, chest, legs, feet, and even his testicles.” According to another workmate, another detainee used to walk around for 12 hours at a time. The workmate said: “He shouldn’t have been in here, he had mental problems. They let him out in Bedford. He left his bags where he was dropped and just walked for four days before being arrested.”
During my training I was warned: “There is none of the namby-pamby stuff we had in the past. Three warnings and then wham.” I listened with horror as senior officers sadistically relished rumours they would soon be able to punch, kick and even head-butt difficult inmates under new control and restraint plans by Home Secretary David Blunkett for the centre.
“That’s how it should be. You lose the momentum. You are in there, you are hyper, you want to go for it. You’re not allowed to hit them. Only blocking moves. But the blocking moves can hurt. They can break limbs. You will always defeat them, no matter how big they are. You will have more teams in the corridor behind them and you will take them out. It will be done.”
A supervisor told recruits: “Control and restraint hurts. You will hurt them. During the [control and restraint techniques] training, treat us like a detainee. We expect to be hurt or you have not been trained right. We are doing it because we want to make them hurt. We are actually assaulting him. It is only because of the job we are doing we can do it.”
After the riots last year, former prison governor Ray Reverley, who manages Yarl?s Wood, brought in psychologist David Boag to retrain staff. Boag?s approach was that Group 4 had been too soft on troublemakers in the centre, and he branded detainees “bastards who would let us down”.
David Boag taught us 25 ways to spot a psychopath, and played a videotape of Britain’s most dangerous inmate Charles Bronson singing ?I Believe? as he held a knife to a prison officer’s throat.
Boag said violence was a last resort, but added: “I am going to train you in how to deal with the really nasty people. Group 4 started treating people humanely, teaching them about duty of care. That’s fine, as far as it goes. If you start treating these people humanely they think it’s a pushover. Sympathy comes between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.”
As the session concluded, he declared: “I’ll tell you Boag’s law. It is this...detainees invariably let you down. And that’s the way it is. Don’t get upset about it. They are bastards basically.”
A senior officer warned recruits: “With control and restraint the idea is to cause pain.” Another said unpopular detainees were sometimes beaten up and any evidence destroyed. “We do that especially with someone we don’t like and give him a good crank. The tape ran out, Your Honour. The battery ran out, Your Honour.” Another worker confessed to using excessive violence on detainees while a colleague moved a security camera so the attacks would not be captured on film.
One shocking admission came from a member of staff who admitted beating one of the rioters before last year’s fire, then covering it up during a probe. After a tussle in the corridor, the officer followed his colleagues to a segregation cell where there were no CCTV cameras. I was told the inmate “got a pasting” and was “splattered against the wall with a riot shield”.
A 19-stone officer confessed to using all his body weight when restraining the naked asylum seeker in a ?figure of eight lock? on the floor. The stricken man was unable to move for 10 minutes.
Another staff member told recruits how he used force against a detained lawyer. He said: “He was always on about his human rights. Always hated me, totally hated me. I once told him, ‘I will fuck you up tomorrow.’ I was involved in the control and restraint team that wrapped him up the next day. It was brilliant.”
Edited article courtesy of The Daily Mirror