Monday, 18 August 2008

From safety to where...?

OK, serious stuff now - which will probably take me the best part of an hour and not please anyone (although if pleasing people was the point of this blog, I've been getting it rather wrong lately).

Today I went to Yarl's Wood detention centre, in the farthest flung reaches of north Bedfordshire. (Not somewhere I'd normally venture as a Lutonian - the north-south divide is alive and kicking in Beds.) The purpose of my mission was to find out for myself what conditions were like there.

So - facts first. Yarl's Wood is a removal centre for failed asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and overstayers (i.e. people who arrive here legally on, say, a six month tourist visa but then don't go home). It may also include foreign national criminals, although increasingly they're being deported straight from prison at the end of their sentences. The average stay is only a couple of weeks. Some residents are removed from the UK at this point; others are successful in opposing removal instructions and return to the community pending judicial review of their cases.

Most people, of course, remember Yarl's Wood from the riot and fire six years ago. It's been substantially rebuilt since, and is very different now. It only houses single women and families for a start (and is the only centre of this type in the UK; all children go to Yarl's Wood). Men are only allowed there as part of a family unit, which could mean a single father and a child. This is one reason why Yarl's Wood tends to be higher profile than other places, as anti-deportation campaigners tend to focus on cases involving children. Many of course take the view that children should never be detained in such places, although their families will only be taken there if they've not taken up opportunities to return voluntarily. There are no unaccompanied children there; they're allowed to remain in the UK until they're adults. I think at the moment there's something like 314 residents there, which includes 89 families and 44 children. It's about 80% full, which is typical.

I have to admit, my first impression of Yarl's Wood was that it was pretty grim. It's on a small industrial estate, which is home to ugly grey warehouses and, surprisingly, Red Bull Racing. (No sign of Mark Webber or David Coulthard though). It looks from the outside like a prison camp.

But then I was shown inside, and taken along corridors lined with children's paintings to meet the Director, Victoria (friendly, young - well, definitely younger than me. Not at all what you'd expect - but then again, I've met the female Governor of HMP Bristol and the Director of Ashfield YOI, and they're nothing like Officer Ferguson either). Also present were reps from the UK Border Agency, who are responsible for overseeing the contract with Serco, who run the centre.

After a very useful chat, we started our tour of the facilities in the reception area, which consists of a welcome desk and a series of rooms, brightly furnished with Ikea sofas and with Disney cartoons painted on the walls. Although there are quite a few locked doors along the corridors, the aim is for the place to look as little like a prison as possible, which is largely successful. For example, many internal gates have been removed or curtains hung to hide them. Residents - which is the term used by staff to describe people detained there - have the keys to their own rooms, which generally have twin beds and their own showers and toilets. They are never locked in, and can generally wander from one place to another. (The family unit is separate because of child protection issues). The rooms are basic, but certainly not cell-like. Residents have televisions and video recorders in their rooms, as well as CD players. There are two libraries, with stacks of videos, internet access, newspapers and books. Residents can find out there about what's going on in their countries of origin, and staff will find out more for them if they're concerned by current events.

There are also three cinemas on site: one showing foreign language films, one showing blockbusters, and the other for children - which was showing Shrek today. There are two hair salons; a gym; a sports hall; arts and crafts rooms; and of course classrooms. I went to the nursery unit: very cute kids, all playing happily, lots of toys and an outside play area. In its Ofsted inspection it had come out overall as 'good' but 'outstanding' in terms of equipping children with social and communication skills, which is pretty impressive considering the circumstances. There is another class for primary school age children, and one for older kids. They all seemed like typical kids; cheerful, a bit rowdy. I asked the teacher and Director what impact detention had on the kids, and was told they generally coped with it well. The youngest ones were either too young to know what was going on, or thought they were on holiday. (And I don't mean that in a dismissive, 'they're all fine' way - it's obviously sad that they're in such a situation, but I couldn't see any evidence that they were traumatised by their experience; in fact, Yarl's Wood was probably for many of them a far better environment than where they'd previously lived.) There's also a youth club for the kid, from the age of 7 upwards, which is done out with Ikea furniture and is a colourful, cheerful place.

Some of the women there seemed a bit bored, but were mostly socialising together: doing each other's hair in the salons, having manicures, or just sitting around talking. The Director wants to provide more adult education, but it's obviously difficult when people are there for such short periods of time. It was visiting time, but only a few families were in the open-plan visiting centre.

I was also shown the health centre, which is the cause of most concern from those who lobby me on such issues. I was told that all new residents are subject to a triage check, and their health/ medication discussed with them. Yes, their medication is usually confiscated, because staff have no way of knowing whether it's the genuine article or not, but they're then given a replacement. GPs come into the centre; there's a dentist; there's a counsellor. (Although I was told that mental health problems are not anywhere near as common as they are in prisons, where it's around the 80% mark.)

I'm sure there's lots more that I could say, but I'll end with this because it's getting on for midnight and I've promised my researcher I'll look at some emails tonight. My lasting impression was that, given the circumstances, Yarl's Wood is about as decent a place as it can be. The Director and her staff make a huge effort to minimise the impact on children in particular, and are a million miles removed from what most people's impressions of prison officers would be. (Not that they regard themselves as prison staff; they're not.)

I've had conversations in the past with organisations who oppose children being held in detention, and I'll be talking to them again. I was at Yarl's Wood for two and a half hours, so I think I saw pretty much everything there was to be seen, and I don't think the wool was pulled over my eyes. Wasn't what I was expecting at all. Will be tracking down some of those organisations at Labour conference, and will see what they have to say about it.


DaveA said...

Quite frankly Kerry, I don't care what the liberals think. The children may have my sympathy, but the adults have none. They came here with malice of forethought with the intention of criminally breaking out immigration rules. I would guess that many of these people were picked up after they had committed further criminal offences. Why these people can get away with appeals and the relative luxury of the camp is a slap in the face to many people who are hard working and hard pressed pensioners. Why these people, once they have been discovered, are not immediately deported on the first plane back is beyond me. If you want due process of law I would give them all a suspended 2 year jail sentence, so if they decide to return they can do it there.

I am sick to death of soft touch Britain.

Kerry said...

I so knew this was the only response I was going to get.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading after you started praising prison governors for being "friendly".

Have you not noticed yet Kerry that public sector managers' only skills lie in their ability to suck up to politicians?

Our prison system is a national disgrace and a large part of the responsibility lies with these "friendly" people.

Kerry said...

Yarl's Wood is run by Serco, a private company. Hence the use of the word 'Director' not Governor. And it's not a prison.

The Director, and the Director of Ashfield - also run by Serco - have both told me that they have much more freedom to run their institutions in the way they see fit than their counterparts in the public sector. From what I've seen, it seems to be paying off.

Anonymous said...

I notice you've left Eastwood Park off your list of local prisons. Possibly because what is going on in there and the type of women being held there is nothing short of a national disgrace and an embarrassment to a civilised country in the 21st Century?

And don't say it's getting better. It isn't. This is from the WDP from May this year:

" The number of cases where girls being held in a much-criticised prison have harmed themselves has rocketed. There were 212 self-harm incidents involving 15 to 17-year-olds at Eastwood Park, near Bristol, last year, an 85 per cent rise on 2006."

15 years old girls? In prison? Seriously harming themselves? They're children Kerry ...

Kerry said...

I don't think I gave a list of local prisons, did I? I mentioned Ashfield in the context of Serco.

I've been to Eastwood Park. The girls are completely separate from the women, so it's not as if they're in an adult prison. It's the equivalent of 15-18 year old boys being held in Ashfield. And from what I recall, most of the girls I met there were in for serious, often violent, offences. The alternative would be to send them many, many miles away from home to one of the few female YOIs. The Director of Ashfield, by the way, refers to her lads as children - because they are.

However, I have said publicly before - in fact I think I said it on the Simon Mayo show - that I believe there are many people in prison/ YOIs who shouldn't be there (80%-plus of prisoners have mental health problems; many women are serving sentences for minor crimes; short sentences serve little rehabilitative purpose but can destroy someone's life back in 'the real world'; and some of the children have horrendous 'back stories' - which in part explains the high incidence of self-harming).

And I accept that we haven't done anywhere near as much as we should have done to address this issue - in fact the increase in the prison population has exacerbated some of the problems. We did, however, commission the Corston report on women in prison last year and the Government is implementing some of its recommendations. And there are plans to put more people into drug treatment programmes as an alternative to custody; in fact, I think I've blogged about that before.

The Bristol Blogger said...

If we're going to talk about "serious, violent offences" then lets talk about the biggest perpetrator here, which is by far the institution and, by extension, the state.

With 10 women dead over the last ten years and self harm incidents running at around 5 a week, the sheer level and consistency of violence against the person in Eastwood Park is nothing short of systematic criminal neglect at the very best.

The fact that Governor Anne Owers remains in post while nothing whatsoever changes tells its own story too.

It seems that petty acts of violence by some of the most vulnerable individuals in the country must be viciously punished while systematic, institutional violence perpetrated by bureaucrats that consistently leads to death and serious injury is dealt with by the commisioning of a few reports and a yearly press release assuring us things are about to improve.

The late Pauline Campbell - about whom we all, no doubt, have an opinion (although it wasn't our daughter who was abandoned to die alone by the state was it?) - regularly protested outside Eastwood Park trying to stop prison vans bringing in prisoners on the basis that it was "not a safe place for women to be held".

Her methods may have been slightly potty but the analysis was perfectly correct.

Who's there to stand up for Eastwood Park's victims now?