Globe, United Kingdom

Yarl’s Wood: a nightmare decade

A series of reports documents the harassment, abuse and rape suffered by female inmates at the hands of officials in the British detention centre.


  Juanjo Andrés Cuervo


“If you have to spread your legs, you’ll do it, because you think it’s the only way to speak to your family,” says a former Yarl’s Wood prisoner.

We now know that her story is not unique, as Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape have compiled a dossier of statements on the subject. Furthermore, the abuse suffered by women detained at the Yarl’s Wood centre has also been detailed in reports by other charities and media outlets.

These two organisations have collated stories from a number of women who encountered sexual abuse while they were prisoners.

The report includes cases such as that of a pregnant woman who was propositioned for sex by a guard, a woman who was impregnated by a guard, and the rape of a female inmate by two guards.

In 2013, the NGOs Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Women Against Rape and All African Women’s Group launched an initiative that would uncover a number of incidents that occurred in the detention centre. “An officer grabbed me when I was naked in bed,” and “the guards used to watch naked women in the punishment room,” were just two of the statements made by former female detainees.

In addition to the sexual violence used by the guards, the investigation showed that they also used racial terms such as “black beauties” to describe female prisoners.

A decade of injustice

And these are not the only organisations to have produced reports on this topic. In 2005, a report published by Legal Action for Women indicated that 70% of the women at Yarl’s Wood were victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence. The report was based upon interviews with around 100 women from the centre.

As recently as 2014, allegations of sexual abuse were further corroborated in an investigation by the charity Women for Refugee Women.

Their report referenced interviews with 38 women.

Of those 38, 33 alleged that guards had seen them in “intimate situations”, 13 said that a man had seen them naked, 29 said that they were seen partially naked, 16 affirmed that men watched them in the shower, and 14 mentioned being observed while using the toilet.

Six women also said that members of staff had made sexual suggestions to them and 3 stated that they had been touched in a sexual manner.

A similar report was compiled by journalist Mark Townsend from The Guardian and The Observer. For his investigation, he carried out interviews with former detainees from the centre who are now members of the All African Women’s Group.

  His report includes statements such as “officials used to touch young girls” and “they promised that the girls would be freed; they said that they would help them in their case in exchange for sex”.

The report goes on to say that a health worker sexually abused a woman on three separate occasions.

  The reports also document the fact that when women complained, they were threatened with deportation. And the guards, according to the same report, remained in their jobs for years without receiving sanctions of any kind.

The details of this story have sparked protests in many detention centres.

700 people recently gathered at the gates of Yarl’s Wood to protest against this sexual abuse.

According to figures in the dossier, 30,000 people are detained each year in the United Kingdom, without charge and for an indefinite length of time.

When comparing this reality with the situation in other countries, the example which stands out is that of Syriza in Greece, which has started to close detention centres across the nation.

According to the Media, Serco, the company in charge of Yarl’s Wood, has tried to deny and cover up what happened there . According to last year, the company “won a £70m contract to continue running Yarl’s Wood for another eight years.”.

(Translated by: Roz Harvey)

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