Posts Tagged ‘indefinite imprisonment’

Shut down Yarl’s Wood Immigration Prison – 2017

Saturday, May 13th, 2023

On Saturday 13th May 2017 I put my Brompton folding bike on the train and made my way to Bedford Station via St Pancras. I was on my way the the 11th protest outside the immigration detention centre at Yarl’s Wood in the campaign led by Movement for Justice to shut down this and other immigration prisons.

Shut down Yarl's Wood Immigration Prison

This was the first time I’d taken a bike to get to Yarl’s Wood, although I’d been to most of the previous protests they had organised there. Before I’d ridden from the station on a coach organised by the event organisers which hadn’t always been ideal, meaning I sometimes arrived late – especially once when the driver got lost – and had to leave when the coach was leaving, sometimes before the end of the protest and sometimes when I would have liked to leave earlier. On the bike I was free to arrive when I wanted and leave when I liked.

Shut down Yarl's Wood Immigration Prison

Yarl’s Wood is sited in an area remote for the southern parts of England, on the site of a former wartime airfield, probably chosen as somewhere people could be locked away out of sight and out of mind, on the hills around 5 miles north of Bedford. Motorists would take the A6 to Milton Ernest, the closest village, and then a mile or more uphill to the meeting point outside the Twinwoods Business Park. But I took a slightly more sensible cycle route, mainly along side roads or cycle paths, with just a short section beside the A6 into the village.

Shut down Yarl's Wood Immigration Prison

Most of the route was uphill, climbing slowly towards the hills, then wasting the energy I’d expended in climbing with short downhill sections. But the final section from Milton Ernest was uphill all the way, long and steep, though I didn’t need to worry about traffic on it as the police had helpfully closed the road.

Shut down Yarl's Wood Immigration Prison

My Brompton has a 3-speed hub gear and isn’t really good on hills, with the lowest of the three still being rather high when things get steep, but I managed to struggle up without having to get off and walk, though I was tired and seriously panting by the time I reached the top.

There I locked the bike to a fence and joined the thousand or so protesters who had travelled from around the country in a long line of coaches parked along the road. There were speeches and chanting for some time as we waited for others to arrive.

Shut down Yarl's Wood Immigration Prison

The gates of the business centre were locked and protesters are prevented from taking the shortest route to the prison (there is also a more direct private road from the south closed to the public.) But a public footpath runs beside the 20ft fence around it. To reach it the campaigners first march a few hundred yards along the road, then turn down one footpath to reach a bridleway before going a few hundred yards along this to the path leading to the prison.

Its not a great distance, a little over three-quarters of a mile, but much of the way is on paths often muddy and full of puddles, and the Brompton is not happy off-road. I ended up pushing it much of the time, occasionally carrying it along with my camera bag, though some of the protesters did give me a hand so I could take some photographs.

Outside the prison the protesters marched into a field on the north side where a small hill rises to give a limited view over the solid lower half of the 20 foot metal prison fence. Their shouts and noise were greeted by those inside the centre who had managed to get to the windows on that side.

The prison windows have very limited opening, but enough for some of the women inside to get their arms through and wave, often holding items of clothing, or sheets of A4 paper with messages calling for freedom and for justice. Our view of them from the hill was only through the wire mesh of the upper 10 feet of the 20 foot fence which made taking pictures difficult.

From most places we could only see the two upper floors of the building, but at the very highest point the upper part of some ground floor windows was also visible. These rooms are used to house families being detained and although Yarl’s Wood was mainly used to detain women there were a few men here as well.

Most of the protesters stood up on the hill holding banners and placards but others were at the bottom, some banging or kicking the metal fence which resonates to make a terrific racket. Others wrote slogans on the fence, though these were only visible to us outside. People climbed up on ladders or other people’s shoulders or used long poles to hold banners, posters and placards in front of the upper mesh where the detainees could see them.

Movement for Justice had brought a public address system and there were speeches, mainly from former detainees, including several women who had been held at Yarl’s Wood. One who spoke was Mabel Gawanas who had been recently released a after a few days short of 3 years inside. A few detainees were also able to speak from inside over mobile phones, amplified by the PA system.

The protests at Yarl’s Wood have been important in gaining publicity for the terrible way in which the UK treats asylum seekers, particularly women who are locked up in this ‘racist, sexist hell-hole’ which has been exposed by various reports. They have an enormous morale-boosting affect on the prisoners who feel isolated and forgotten inside.

But the government’s response has been to re-purpose Yarl’s Wood as a short-term holding facility for men arriving in the UK by boat in December 2021 and to set up a new immigration detention centre for women in an even more remote location in County Durham, where it is much harder for the women to organise and argue their cases. Almost certainly a part of this decision was to try to avoid further protests such as this one.

More recently the Home Office has started indefinitely detaining women at Yarl’s Wood again, although the numbers are much smaller. No official announcement was made of this reversion.

Much more at Shut down Yarl’s Wood Prison on My London Diary.