Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre 'a national concern', says prisons watchdog

The report said healthcare services at Yarl's Wood have declined "severely". Credit: PA

A controversial immigration detention centre has been branded a "national concern" in a scathing report by the prisons watchdog.

Healthcare services at the understaffed Yarl's Wood centre have declined "severely" and dozens of pregnant women have been held at the facility against government policy.

Other women were being detained for more than a year because of "unacceptable" delays in processing their cases.

Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick said: "Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held."

The Bedfordshire centre held 354 detainees at the time of inspections in April and May, mainly women.

Home Office policy states pregnant women should not normally be detained, but 99 were held at Yarl's Wood in 2014. Only nine were ultimately removed from the UK.

Some are being held for more than a year because of "unacceptable" delays in processing their cases. In one case a woman had been held for 17 months.

Maurice Wren, chief executive of Refugee Council, called for Yarl's Wood to be closed.

He said: "The fact that people fleeing war and persecution are being locked away indefinitely in a civilised country is an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our democracy."

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found 45% of female detainees feel "unsafe" due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, poor healthcare and having too few visible staff.

Inspectors also revealed violent incidents have increased, with the number of reported assaults trebling in a year. In one incident, an officer repeatedly struck at least two women with his shield as staff attempted to remove a detainee.

A protest at Yarl's Wood to close all UK detention centers earlier this month. Credit: PA

There were also complaints about sexually inappropriate comments from staff, "sexual contact" and abuse, although no women said they were aware of staff being involved in any illegal activity of sexual abuse and HMIP found no evidence of widespread abuse.

Mr Hardwick called for "decisive action" to ensure women are only detained as "a last resort".

He said: "Yarl's Wood is rightly a place of national concern. 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."

In the previous six months, 894 women were released back into the community - more than double the number (443) who were removed from the UK.

The report said this "raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place".

There were some positive findings. HMIP said the facility was clean, most detainees said staff treated them with respect, while recreational facilities and access to the internet were good.

Serco, which has operated Yarl's Wood since 2007, said it was "working very hard" to increase female staff numbers.

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.

An NHS England spokeswoman said it has been working closely with G4S to "ensure that rapid progress is made to achieve the high standards which we expect".

She added they have "action plans" in place to address the concerns raised during a recent inspection and they will be reviewed in the light of the new report.