June has seen hunger strikes and rioting by immigration prisoners at Brook House, the new immigration prison at Gatwick airport, and Yarl’s Wood, the prison which has been at the centre of numerous claims of abuse and struggles by detainees since it opened in 2000.
On June 12th, a group of detainees at Brook House immigration prison began resisting lockdown and rioting broke out. Guards – who are employees of private contractors G4S – fled the wing, which was taken over by the prisoners. Detainees took about damaging the contents of the administration wing and cells. A large fire was set in the courtyard.
The riot was put down the following morning by specialist ‘tornado team’ riot officers. During the disturbances, which were confined to the A Wing, many detainees throughout the centre were locked down for 24 hours and given only an apple and a KitKat to eat during that period.
Two days later, the detainees at Yarl’s Wood immigration prison went on hunger strike, refusing to go to the cafeteria. This action was taken in response to the inhumane and humiliating conditions being imposed on prisoners, who include young children and those with medical conditions, at the Serco-run detention centre.
The following day, detainees prevented the deportation of a family, and on the Wednesday they began occupying corridors. Serco responded by bringing in over 30 guards to violently remove the detainees, and stripped naked two of the female hunger strikers in the process. Detainees report that a prison guard humiliated one of the women by filming her on his camera phone.
One of the woman detainees told a supporter "I have never ever seen such violence. They were beating the men like they were animals. They say if we dare to go back into the corridor they will spray us all over [with pepper spray]. We need your help from outside. We don't have any rights in here. We need your support from outside."
Though there are guidelines outlining that children and those with mental health issues should not be detained in such facilities, they are routinely ignored. Earlier in the year the Childrens’ commissioner reported that young children, many with health problems, are being locked up with "scant regard to basic welfare needs." The report found that children with serious health conditions were denied treatment, and many have been delayed emergency medical attention, including a baby with pneumonia.
Yarl’s wood has been subject to controversy since it opened, with investigations by newspapers and reports by official investigators finding institutional racism, humiliation of detainees and racist attacks. In 2006 Legal Action for Women reported that many female detainees had no access to lawyers, and were subject to sexual and racial intimidation by guards. Booklets detailing prisoners’ legal rights have been confiscated by Serco guards.
Hunger strikers' statement:
1. Children, some as young as five months old, are sick in this detention centre. Most were struck down with a virus, they are not eating properly since they are not used to the food here, not sleeping properly, restless and suffer other psychological manifestations including nightmares, bedwetting, screaming at night, violent behaviours and other emotional outbursts like crying etc.
2. A recently bereaved family of three, who lost their twins and buried [them] just about a month ago, [are] being detained and [have been] given removal directions without even a chance to say farewell to the grave at Everton cemetery, where three of their children are buried.
3. Pregnant women, some with complications, are detained with total disregard of their well-being, including a pregnant lady, who is also suffering from depression and anxiety.
4. A lady recently went through a major life-threatening operation for ectopic pregnancy a couple of months ago, and is now detained without even sufficient time to recover.
5. An epileptic lady who suffers multiple seizures, up to six times in a twenty-four hour period, with only a 14-year-old son to look after her. The occupants tried to assist in such distressing times.
6. Families in considerable distress [are] being plucked out of their beds early in the morning and transported in mobile prisons for long hours to the airport.
7. The continuing detention has placed considerable stress on families and, as such, we have decided to rise with a single voice and say no to detention of innocent people.
8. Hence, this is the second day of a continuing hunger-strike. Also tonight [Tuesday, 16th June], all occupants here, with the children, have decided to spend the night protesting outside [in the court yard].
9. We will appreciate any help and advice we can get from you.