Mothers and Fathers at the SERCO-run Yarl's Wood detention centre near Bedford are in the second day of a hunger strike against inadequate medical care, problems over food provision and the continued detention of children there. Since opening in 2001, the Bedfordshire detention centre has been plagued by hunger strikes, self-harm incidents, a suicide and riots. It was severely damaged by fire during disturbances in 2002.
The provision of health care at Yarl's Wood has been the subject of concern and criticism for many years. In 2006 a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that "systems were inadequate and the healthcare service was not geared to meet the needs of those with serious health problems or ... detainees held for longer periods for whom prolonged and uncertain detention was itself likely to be detrimental to their well being." And that "the delivery of healthcare was undermined by a lack of needs assessment, weak audit and clinical governance systems, inadequate staff training in relation to trauma. Mental health care provision was also insufficient."
At that time Yarl's Wood was managed by GSL and health care was sub-contracted out to another private company, Veritas, who were not registered with the Healthcare Commission unlike all public sector health care providers. GSL subsequently lost their contract to run the detention centre to SERCO, with the health care to be provided by a subsidiary SERCO Health. Following the change over, health care provision was again criticised by the Prison's Inspector in 2008 as patchy and that there were no specialist health services for children.
In a report entitled The Arrest and Detention of Children Subject to Immigration Control, written by the Children's Commissioner for England Alan Aynsley-Green, one of the key findings was "substantial evidence that detention is harmful and damaging to children and young people" and that children held at Yarl's Wood regarded it as little more than a prison. Health care provision for minors was again criticised with "particular areas of concern are: the recording and availability of patient information; provision of follow-up care; delivery of immunisations; inadequacy of clinical care; poor care provided to children and adults with mental health needs; and consideration before removal of healthcare needs thereafter." Also criticised was the service to pregnant women.
The main conclusion of the report was that the UK should end the practice of detaining children in immigration prisons in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet the practice continues, as does the criticisms of heath care provision at the detention centre. In yesterday's Daily Mail (of all places!) an article blew the story of the latest protests inside Yarl's Wood, with numerous detainees willing to go on the record with their complaints: a mass outbreak of a virus amongst the children; an epileptic woman who suffers multiple seizures (up to 6 a day) who only has a 14 year old son to look after her who was accused of 'faking it' by staff; pregnant women, some with complications, detained with a total disregard of their well-being; the list goes on. (See also)
One woman was even forced to dial 999 when her five-month old son's temperature shot up and the medical staff at the centre ignored her requests for medical care. "He was really sick and he'd never been in that condition before. I tried telling the staff, and the staff were calling the health care but no one was coming."
On top of that today, during a sit in protest SERCO guards attacked some of the protesters. This was was witnessed over the phone by a migrant support worker who was at the time talking to the wife of Solomom Ojeheonmon, who was quoted in the Mail article. She was unable to re-establish contact with those inside Yarl's Wood, but subsequent communication with the detention centre by Solomom's MP has elicited the admission that force may have been use when "guards removed some of the male ringleaders."