Yarl’s Wood 11

This was Movement for Justice’s 11th protest at Yarl’s Wood, and the 10th that I’ve attended, having missed the first and perhaps most exciting when people actually broke down a fence to get to the prison fence. Now the authorities leave a gate open that they can go through to the field next door to the detention centre.

I don’t often travel so far to take pictures, except for very special events, partly because of the time it takes, but also because it gets a little expensive. And partly for medical reasons I no longer drive, no that I ever did much. So that means public transport, and getting to Bedford is easy enough, though it costs more than the average repro fee I get. Financially any trip out of London is likely to be a loser for me, but this is a protest that I cover not for the money but because I think the cause is a particularly important one.

Yarl’s Wood is a little over 5 miles north of Bedford which is a little over 50 miles from where I live. Going by train to Bedford station takes around 2 hours, but from there the journey is a little tricky. MfJ put on coaches from London, but I’d have to leave home rather early to catch them, and there was also a coach from Bedford station, for a donation of a fiver for the return journey, which I’d used previous times, but it was slow (especially when the driver didn’t know the way) and has sometimes meant I’ve arrived rather late. I could take a taxi, but unless I found someone to share this would be expensive. There is a bus from Bedford, to nearby Milton Ernest, which would be free for me, but leave me with a mile walk uphill to the meeting point. As the bus is only hourly it would add considerably to the journey time.

So the obvious thing to do was to take my folding bicycle on the train. I could then walk off the train at Bedford, unfold the Brompton and pedal away, getting to Yarl’s Wood rather quicker than the MfJ coach which would be waiting around and probably only leaving the station car park more or less as I was riding to the Yarl’s Wood meeting point.

It more or less worked out. But I hadn’t really allowed for the hills, and the road goes up and down a bit. The down is OK, but the ups were just a little tiring, particularly as for some reason I could only get the middle and top of the bikes three gears. And the last stretch up from the main road at Milton Ernest was pretty exhausting, but fortunately the road levels out just before my destination and I was able to arrive at the protest at a reasonable speed – and to cheers and catcalls from some of my colleagues who had come up from London by car.

Carrying my photo gear on the bike probably isn’t good for it, but the Brompton has a front carrier bag which will double as a rather poor camera bag simply by fitting a shoulder strap on it. Back when I first got the Brompton at the end of 2002, I used it mainly for taking me out into the landscape with a panoramic camera.

At the protest I locked the bike to a fence, took off the bag and put it on my shoulder and worked as normal. But then the protesters set off on the march to the field next to the immigration prison. I cycled ahead of them on the road, then jumped off and took some pictures, and some more as they were going into the first field. From there it got difficult, as there is around three-quarters of a mile of footpath mainly along the edges of some fields, some of which were a little rough and muddy. The Brompton isn’t a good off-road bike and most of the way I had to get off and push – and there are no pictures on My London Diary from this section of the march. Once we got the the field I could lock it and leave it again and get down to work.

Fortunately the weather had been reasonably dry for the previous few weeks, or the mud on the path would have been more of a problem. And where we were protesting was relatively dry – on some previous visits the mud had made it very hard to keep on your feet while taking pictures, particularly as the ground is uneven.

As always there was a huge welcome from the prison windows which overlooked the protest, with those inside shouting and waving and pushing out messages and anything to hand through the narrow slits that the windows will open. Between us and them is a 20ft high fence, the lower half solid, but the upper part a mesh through which we and they could see, though making it hard to take photographs.

Mabel Gawanas spent almost three years inside Yarl’s Wood

It’s totally shameful that this country looks up asylum seekers in this way for indefinite periods, leaving them never knowing whether at any moment they will be taken away and an effort made to deport them. Something like two thirds are eventually given leave to remain; some others are released with their cases still undetermined and some are packed onto planes and flown home, sometimes to face persecution in their own countries. Locking them up makes it much harder for them to prove their cases, and is no way to treat people who have fled persecution and physical danger, often beatings, torture and rape, and are in need of care and compassion. As too many reports, particularly those by undercover journalists who have got jobs inside them have shown, in Yarls Wood and the other immigration removal centres they are physically and mentally abused, even sexually abused. And of course there are the stories from the detainees themselves, some of which from both current and former detainees, are heard at these protests. Unlike convicted criminals, the detainees in our immigration prison are allowed mobile phones and their calls can be relayed to us outside.

The centres like this one are run for profit, with corners being cut on food and care, often understaffed and by people with inadequate training and unsuitable for the job. These centres should be closed down, and only those people who present a real threat to others – a vanishingly small percentage of those currently held – should be detained.

Getting back home was quicker too and I could leave when I liked. Better still, apart from one short very steep hill it was more or less downhill all the way, and caught a train an hour earlier than I would probably have done on the coach. The total journey home, with two trains and the underground between London stations was actually a little faster than the only time I’ve gone to Yarl’s Wood by car.

Many more pictures at Shut down Yarl’s Wood Prison


There are no adverts on this site and it receives no sponsorship, and I like to keep it that way. But it does take a considerable amount of my time and thought, and if you enjoy reading it, a small donation – perhaps the cost of a beer – would be appreciated.

My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.