Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre - not meeting the needs of vulnerable women

Yarl’s Wood has deteriorated since its last inspection and the needs of the women held have grown, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire.

Yarl’s Wood held 354 detainees at the time of this inspection. Most were single women but the centre also held a small number of adult families and a short-term holding facility held single men. Inspectors last visited in June 2013 and at that time concluded that the centre was improving, although significant concerns remained. This more recent inspection found that in some important areas the treatment and conditions of those held had deteriorated significantly, the main concerns from 2013 had not been resolved and there was greater evidence of the distress caused to vulnerable women by their detention. Inspectors did not find evidence of a widespread abusive or hostile culture among staff, although there were some matters of concern. Inspectors observed positive attempts by staff to ameliorate the impact of detention for those in their care, although staff numbers and training gaps limited what they could do.

Yarl’s Wood had become more complex and challenging to manage since the last inspection. About 12% of detainees were ex-prisoners. Many women told inspectors harrowing stories about their histories. At best, they were distressed about their detention and the uncertainty surrounding their possible deportation.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • in a survey, 54% of the women held said they felt depressed or suicidal when they first arrived;
  • 45% of women said they felt unsafe, saying it was due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, a poor introduction to the centre, very poor health care and having too few visible staff on the units;
  • a new contract with reduced staffing levels was being introduced and inspectors were concerned that staffing levels were insufficient;
  • there was no counselling service;
  • staff and detainees told inspectors about a loss of mutual trust that had occurred since recent news reports;
  • early days processes were weak;
  • health care screening, which involved asking intimate questions, was sometimes carried out by a male nurse;
  • most use of force was well managed, but inspectors were concerned about one incident in which an officer appeared to use excessive force;
  • some women were detained for long periods and some of the most vulnerable women were detained without clear reason;
  • 99 pregnant women had been detained in 2014, despite the Home Office’s policy stating pregnant women should not normally be detained;
  • Rule 35 reports, which should protect detainees who have been tortured, lacked detail and were perfunctory;
  • there were still too many male staff and it was unacceptable that staff still entered women’s rooms without knocking;
  • health care had declined most severely, with severe staff shortages and poor local governance;
  • care planning for women with complex needs was so poor it put them at risk;
  • the available mental health care did not meet women’s needs; and
  • pharmacy services were chaotic.

In surveys and interviews, inspectors asked current detainees, former detainees and staff about sexually inappropriate behaviour between staff and detainees. Inspectors did not find evidence of widespread abuse in the centre but the vulnerability of the women held, the closed nature of the institution and the power imbalance between the staff and detainees made individual instances an ever-present risk.

Inspectors were, however, pleased to find that:

  • the short-term holding facility was decent and clean, staff were professional and most of the men only stayed a few days;
  • women at risk of suicide and self-harm praised the support they received from staff but other forms of support, such as counselling, were absent;
  • security was generally thoughtful and proportionate and some of the most intrusive elements of physical security had been removed;
  • most detainees in interviews and 80% in our survey said staff treated them with respect;
  • women had good freedom of movement and recreational facilities were good;
  • women reported positively on the help given to them to prepare for removal or release and a small number of voluntary organisations provided important services; and
  • visits provision was good and detainees had good access to the internet.

Nick Hardwick 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. These are issues that need to be addressed at a policy and strategic management level. We have raised many of the concerns in this report before. 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.

“Yarl’s Wood has deteriorated since our last inspection. In my view, decisive action is needed to ensure that women are only detained as a last resort. Other well-respected bodies have recently called for time limits on administrative detention, and the concerns we have identified provide strong support for these calls.”

Notes to editors:    

  1. Read the report.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 13 April – 1 May 2015.
  4. Yarl’s Wood is run by Serco on behalf of the Home Office.
  5. The inspection criteria were amended to reflect HMI Prisons’ new expectations for women’s prisons, which incorporate the requirements of the UN ‘Bangkok Rules’ for the treatment of women prisoners. In addition to the normal confidential detainee survey, researchers asked specific survey questions to address particular issues of concern, such as inappropriate sexual behaviour. Inspectors offered every woman in Yarl’s Wood a confidential interview with a female inspector, using interpretation where necessary, and carried out confidential interviews with a sample of staff. Inspectors interviewed 92 women detainees in Yarl’s Wood and a further eight who had recently been released, as well as 39 staff. The inspection, conducted over three weeks, included intelligence gathered from voluntary and community groups.
  6. G4S Justice Health had provided health services since September 2014.
  7. Please contact Jane Parsons in HM Inspectorate of Prisons press office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information or to request an interview.