This post was written for Unlocking Detention by Heather Jones, who visits women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

In 2014 ninety-nine pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood.  This was despite Home Office Guidance which includes a list of people whom the Home Office thinks should be considered suitable for detention in only very exceptional circumstances.  The list includes ‘Pregnant women, unless there is the clear prospect of early removal and medical advice suggests no question of confinement prior to this.’  Evidence gathered by Medical Justice in their report of 2013, ‘Expecting Change’ states that most pregnant women are released rather than removed.

Pregnancy ought to be a happy time.  A woman would normally be looking forward to the future and preparing for the birth of her baby.  How can a woman in detention prepare? She does not know when she will leave Yarl’s Wood or where she will be living.  I cannot imagine how anyone can reasonably expect a pregnant woman to find somewhere to live and a means of supporting herself and her baby on arrival in a country she left sometime before, often in traumatic circumstances.   I have met many pregnant women held in detention, some were facing removal during the late stages of pregnancy.  Most of these women were eventually released, sometimes after lengthy periods of detention, but a few were removed.

The most memorable thing I have done as a visitor was to attend the burial of a baby, stillborn at around 20 week’s gestation.  There were only three of us there, the mother, a hospital chaplain and me.  The mother had a history of miscarriage and had been complaining of pain in her abdomen for the last three weeks of her detention.  She had been detained for most of her pregnancy and only released after the death of her baby who was born in hospital with uniformed escorts present.  I do not know if her baby would have lived if she had received better care but she should not have been held there for so long.   She was eventually granted the right to stay here but the trauma of her detention remains with her.

I have now been visiting Yarl’s Wood for nearly eleven years.  During that time I have met many women in other categories that Home Office rules state should not be detained.  The elderly or disabled.  Mentally ill women.  Victims of torture or trafficking.  I have met those whom I really felt should have been granted status, many with very sad tales of abuse to tell. Women flee for all the same reasons that men do but also for some reasons specific to their gender, the risk of FGM, forced marriage or abortion for example.  A large number are survivors of rape.

Most of the staff I meet are very friendly but there are still far too many male officers, which some detainees find very intimidating.  Many women tell me that some of the officers are very kind; “They are doing their best”; “They try to help” but that is often followed by “but some of them are rude”.  These comments strongly contrast with some terrible accounts that have come out of Yarl’s Wood during the past few years including sexual assault.   The most recent report was undercover filming documenting unacceptable, derogatory conversations between officers.

Earlier this year many staff lost their jobs because a new contract meant savings needed to be made.  Two conversations I had with officers that were leaving have stayed with me.  Both were well thought of by detainees, I had met them both many times.  The first was a quietly spoken woman with a very gentle manner.  She told me that she would miss working with the women but that she was glad to be going to a job she could be proud of.  The second told me about his decision to leave.  He told me he had spent some time talking to a young couple facing removal.   The wife was pregnant and unwell.  He encouraged them to trust their solicitor who was working on stopping their removal and persuaded them that it would be best not to make a fuss by refusing to go. He took them to reception where they were due to be collected by escorts for their flight.  As soon as they had walked through the door, escorts jumped on the man, knocked him to the floor and pinned him to the ground.  He had said nothing, he had not resisted in any way.  The removal was later cancelled.  It was this that made him decide he could no longer work there.

I have visited Yarl’s Wood with a range of people, some local, some from quite a distance away. Family, funders, clergy, MPs, Councilors, students, all sorts of people interested in finding out for themselves just what Yarl’s Wood is really like.  All of them have been moved by listening to accounts by women of their past experiences and of the difficulties they face detained in Yarl’s Wood.   Some women manage to appear remarkably strong and smile as they are let through the locked door at the far end of the visit hall but often the sadness behind that smile is all too evident during the visit.

The recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention earlier this year were widely welcomed by campaigners and anyone who has been affected by detention.  Anyone who has visited Yarl’s Wood or lives nearby as I do, is affected by detention.  There is a growing strength of feeling that there must be change.   This year there have been regular demonstrations outside Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres.  Women held in Yarl’s Wood really appreciate this noisy demonstration of support, it is really important to continue to show our support for this very vulnerable group until this horrible, expensive, damaging and ineffective policy is finally changed.