'No longer safe': Watchdog finds 'prison-like conditions' at Home Office detention centre

Prisons inspector "concerned about deteriorating outcomes" at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre
Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire. Photo: Robert Oates/Alamy Stock Photo

A Home Office detention centre is no longer safe enough, inspectors have said, in a report that described detainees living in “prison-like conditions”.

More than two in five (41%) of the men and women held at Yarl’s Wood, near Bedford, said they had felt unsafe during their time at the immigration removal centre, according to HM chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor’s latest inspection report.

In a survey carried out alongside the inspection, 84% of detainees said they had felt depressed and 44% said they had felt suicidal while in the centre, which is operated by outsourcing giant Serco.

“Lengthy and indefinite detention” and a lack of information on how their immigration cases were progressing were highlighted as “the main causes of distress” for many detainees. Of the 347 detainees at Yarl’s Wood at the time of the inspection, 32 had been there for over six months, and eight for over a year.

Despite there being a “high level of assessed vulnerability” in the centre – including victims of torture – inspectors said the Home Office “did not always pass this information to staff at the centre, which limited their ability to keep these men and women safe”.

Inspectors found that at least two psychotic detainees who were not well enough to be detained had been held in the control and separation unit for extended periods.

Inspectors who visited the centre in June and July said there was a “tangible change in atmosphere” compared with their last full inspection in 2017. This was exacerbated by physical changes including the installation of razor wire and “prison-style cell doors and vented windows”, they said.

Taylor said many of the detainees inspectors spoke to “expressed not only their frustration but also their distress” at “being held for long periods of time with not enough to do”.

With frustration fuelled by long periods in detention without progress on immigration cases, 51 detainees refused to return to their cells in April, and 13 subsequently escaped, the report said.

“There were more detainees, more protests and more evident frustration, fuelled by longer periods of cumulative detention without enough progress on immigration cases: 32 people had been detained for over six months and eight for over a year,” Taylor’s report said.

“Our assessments of a healthy establishment evidenced the deterioration. At this inspection the provision of activity had clearly worsened, and of even greater concern, safety outcomes were no longer sufficiently good.”

The inspectorate dropped Yarl’s Wood’s safety rating from “reasonably good” in 2017 to “not sufficiently good” following the recent inspection. The “activities” rating also dropped from “good” to “reasonably good”.

The remaining two criteria – respect, and preparation for removal and release – remained unchanged and were judged to be “reasonably good”.

Of the five most pressing recommendations from the 2017 report, inspectors found only two – related to the number of female staff and management of the onsite pharmacy – had been achieved.

Recommendations around support for those people the centre, the length of time people were held in detention and the timeliness of the Rule 35 process to assess whether someone is too vulnerable to be kept in detention had not been met.

The inspection found that while use of force by detention centre staff was “infrequent and usually low level, and oversight was generally reasonable”, there had been “at least one example of potentially dangerous practice by staff during an incident had not been identified by managers”.

Inspectors were also “concerned about the blurring of accountability” for overseeing and implementing separation before residents were deported.

“Overall, while the experience for most detainees was currently adequate, we left Yarl’s Wood concerned about deteriorating outcomes in a centre that was having to manage a complex and larger population of detainees, who were held for longer periods,” Taylor said in his foreword to the report.

Commenting on the report, Taylor noted that the detention centre had been through “a period of significant change”, having been used temporarily as a short-term holding facility for people arriving in the UK on small boats before resuming its previous role as a longer-term detention centre.

“Rapid action is needed to make sure that the men and women held in Yarl’s Wood are held in more appropriate conditions and that their immigration cases are processed without delay,” he said.

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