Controversial immigration detention centre Yarl’s Wood has been branded “a place of national concern” after a damning report from the prison watchdog.
Investigators found dozens of pregnant women had been held at the Bedfordshire facility, with some being held for more than a year, because of ‘unacceptable’ delays.
Healthcare services had declined “severely” and in one case a woman had been held there for 17 months.
Pregnant women are only supposed to be detained if their removal is imminent.
An investigation by Channel 4 News in March revealed a worrying story about a woman who collapsed in the facility’s dining hall and later miscarried, and the healthcare she received afterwards.
The prison watchdog also found the centre is understaffed with the majority of employees being male, and the centre is not meeting the needs of vulnerable women.
Serco says male guards are not allowed to enter women’s bedrooms or bathrooms without any warning, but the Channel 4 News investigation filmed one guard talking about how he had been accused of breaking that rule.
Guards were also filmed calling detainees “animals” and in a discussion of one detainee it was suggested that a guard should “Headbutt the b****”.
At the time Serco said that they would not “tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate.”
Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “Yarl’s Wood is rightly a place of national concern. We should not make the mistake of blaming this on the staff on the ground.
“While there have been instances of unacceptable individual behaviour, most staff work hard to mitigate the worst effects of detention and women told us they appreciated this. However, Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held.”
The Immigration Removal Centre held 345 detainees at the time of inspection in April and May, most of them women.
The Home Office states that pregnant women should not normally be detained but 99 of them were held at Yarl’s Wood in 2014 and only nine were ultimately removed from the UK.
Mr Hardwick said, “Pregnant detainees and women with mental health problems should only be held in the most exceptional circumstances. Rule 35 should ensure that women who have been tortured or traumatised or are extremely vulnerable in other ways are not in detention.
“Staff should have the training and support they need to better understand the experiences of the women for whom they are responsible. There are not enough female staff. This inspection has also identified new concerns. Health care needs to improve urgently. Staffing levels as a whole are just too low to meet the needs of the population.”
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found 45 per cent of female detainees feel “unsafe” due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, poor healthcare and having too few visible staff.
Inspectors also found that there were no counselling services for women and health care screenings were sometimes carried out by a male nurse.
There had also been an increase in violent incidents with the number of assaults trebling in a year. However, investigators found that 80 per cent of women said staff treated them with respect and good freedom of movement within the facility.
Serco, which has operated Yarl’s Wood since 2007, said it was “working very hard” to increase female staff numbers.
Julia Rogers, Serco’s Managing Director Home Affairs, said: “We are pleased that in their conclusions, published today, they found that four out of five residents said that ‘staff treated them with respect’ and that they, ‘did not find evidence of a widespread abusive or hostile culture amongst staff’, and that ‘most staff work hard to mitigate the worst effects of detention'”.
In response to Channel 4 News’ investigation, Serco commissioned former barrister Kate Lampard to conduct an independent review into conditions at the centre. Ms Rogers said that they “await the outcome” of that report.
John Shaw, of G4S, which provides health services, said the firm is “reconfiguring” the service to address a “growing number of more complex medical requirements” at the centre. He said: “We are committed to working closely with the NHS to raise the standard of service at Yarl’s Wood and improve results for those who require medical care.”