An undercover investigation has revealed a shocking culture of racism, sexism and threats of violence in Britain’s most notorious detention centre.
Footage recorded in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre reveals that desperate prisoners threw themselves down a staircase in apparent attempts to commit suicide.
In one of the most shocking incidents uncovered by the investigation by Channel 4 News, a bleeding woman suffering a miscarriage had to wait three hours after begging guards to let her see a doctor.
Staff said she was “refusing to wait her turn” and admonished her for ringing an ambulance herself.
Guards were filmed describing various detainees as “black bitch”, “evil”, and one warder even threatened to “get a stick and beat them”.
Yarl’s Wood is operated by Serco, a private company paid hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The footage raises serious questions for the Home Office about Serco, which was recently investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging the government by tens of millions of pounds.
Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire, houses more than 400 asylum seekers and victims of trafficking, who can spend years fighting deportation. Almost all the inmates are women.
The centre has been plagued by claims of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour by male guards.
In January, Rashida Manjoo, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, asked whether the government had “something to hide” after she was banned from inspecting Yarl’s Wood during an official visit.
Now, in a three-month investigation, Channel 4 News has for the first time gained access and uncovered a litany of abuse. The footage captures guards displaying an appalling attitude towards the women. One is heard recounting a story to another colleague and admitting he “headbutted the bitch”.
Another says: “Do you know what? They are all the f****** same. They’re all bastards.” One guard compares the detainees to “caged animals” and advises his companion: “Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
One alleged practice involved desperate women being pursued by guards and throwing themselves down staircases.
Esther Azigwe, who suffered years of sexual violence as a teenager in Ghana before fleeing to the UK, claimed that her mental health had deteriorated significantly at Yarl’s Wood. When a female guard and a colleague told her that she was about to be sent back to Ghana by force, she panicked.
“[They said] we will force you and take you back to your country because we are allowed to force you in any way,” she said. “And then I started running, then they started chasing me… I was like, ‘I’m not going, I don’t want to go’. I stood by the stairs and said, ‘If you come near me I will jump’… She still tried to come and then I jumped.”
In another incident, a guard tells of a Chinese inmate who had been imprisoned for two years who broke her back jumping off the stairwell. He said: “She had to be in a wheelchair, so they decided she got released.”
Figures obtained under freedom of information laws show the number of incidents of self-harm requiring medical treatment at Yarl’s Wood rose from just one in 2011 to 74 in 2013. Serco disputed the Home Office figures and said it took all cases of self-harm seriously.
In one exchange, a guard complains: “They are all slashing their wrists, apparently. Let them slash their wrists… it’s attention seeking.”
Rumours of male staff walking unannounced into women’s rooms when they were naked have circulated for years. In 2013 the Home Office issued a ban, but the footage shows one officer admitting he did just that.
“I just like tits. I’m addicted to the viewing of tits,” he said. Serco said a guard had been disciplined for his conduct.
The Home Office said the allegations were “disturbing” and called on Serco and G4S to launch a review.
James Thorburn, managing director of Serco’s home affairs business, said he had not seen the footage but added: “I would be shocked and angry if anybody we employ was talking about people in our care in a disrespectful or obnoxious manner. We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate.
“The work we do at Yarl’s Wood creates a particularly challenging environment. The public will want to be confident that Yarl’s Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity. Accordingly, we have commissioned an independent review into… Yarl’s Wood.”
G4S, which manages the medical unit where the pregnant woman allegedly suffered distress, said: “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.”
Mark Leech, editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisons in England and Wales said he was ‘shocked’ at what he had been told.
Mr Leech said: “I am shocked at this report and will certainly be watching the Channel 4 programme tomorrow.
“Yarls Wood was last inspected in 2013 when the Chief Inspector gave a largely positive report saying the establishment was safe – I would expect that in light of this footage Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector, will be hot-footing it back to Yarls Wood very quickly – if true, it really is a shocking example of how detention should not be operated and if necessary Serco should lose their contract to run the establishment.”
Inside Yarl’s Wood is on Channel 4 News tomorrow at 7pm