UK: Group4 racism at Yarls Wood exposed

23.Jan.04 - Last December, an undercover journalists went into Yarl's Wood detention centre in the UK and exposed violent racism of Group 4 employees. Below is the outcome of the expose which was published by the Daily Mirror and sparked off parliamentary debate and an investigation. There's little hope for any real sanctions though.

Daily Mirror, 8 December 2003: 'Group 4's blunders slammed'

Group 4 has been no stranger to controversy and criticism since it branched out as a prisoner escort service in 1993. It was blasted by the judge during the trial of 11 asylum seekers following the riot and fire at Yarl's Wood in February 2002. He branded the security company "ill-equipped" to deal with the violence and slammed the way it had handled the investigation. A prosecutor in the case added Group 4 was a "national laughing stock". Within three weeks of its becoming the UK's first private prisoner escort service 10 years ago, seven prisoners had escaped from custody in seven break-outs.

Asylum seekers have also got away from its detention centres at Campsfield House, near Oxford, and Oakington in Cambridgeshire. A prison service report into the Campsfield break-out said staff were inexperienced, poorly paid and worked exhausting shifts. And the fall-out at Yarl's Wood continues. Three former detainees say they were denied food and injured by staff after the fire and are planning to sue Group 4. But the firm, which recently rebranded itself Global Solutions, insists it is doing a good job and denies their claims.

Daily Mirror, 8 December 2003: 'Mirrorman exposes asylum shame after landing job' by Gary Jones

Racist guards who boast of abusing inmates at an asylum centre are exposed by the mirror today. Like our undercover palace footman Ryan Parry a Mirror reporter was given the job of a security officer after writing a fake CV. In seven weeks at Yarl's Wood detention centre, in Bedfordshire, Nick Sommerlad heard staff spout racist filth and brag of handing out beatings. Though its 60 women inmates are depressed and vulnerable they were described as "scum of the scum". He was instructed not to treat them with sympathy or believe their harrowing stories.

One guard boasted of giving inmates a "pasting" during control and restraint procedures. Another said they beat victims out of sight of CCTV cameras. Some sadistically relished rumours that they may soon be allowed to punch, kick and even headbutt difficult detainees. One racist officer said dinghies used by desperate asylum seekers should be sunk by the Navy.

What Sommerlad saw mocks the Government's claim that the recently reopened £100million centre provides a "safe and caring" environment for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

A horrified black colleague told him: "There are racists here. I can't see why managment doesn't do anything about it." Yarl's Wood, reopened after it was burned down in riots last year, is run by Group 4. It holds failed asylum seekers and immigrants awaiting deportation. But many of its detainees could later be granted refugee status or temporary admission to Britain while claims are decided. About 120 staff work at the centre, which is planned to house 400 men, women and children by 2005.

Although the Home Office insists it is not a prison, staff are trained to treat detainees like prisoners. A psychologist told recruits to be "assertive" as inmates are "bastards" who will always let you down. Officers are also told to strip search and segregate suicidal detainees to avoid a £10,000 Home Office fine for a death in custody. Sommerlad was told countless stories of violent and disruptive inmates. But the women he met were subdued. One officer said: "These ones are pussycats. I've spent six years dealing with a**eholes." Significantly, Sommerlad was sacked 24 hours after Parry's story of how he worked as a royal footman appeared in the Mirror. Checks on his CV which should have been made before he started work were suddenly carried out.

Referees received phone calls to validate his claims. He was then called before Group 4 bosses who dismissed him when he confessed he lied on his application. After last year's Valentine's Day riot Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "We have no option but to toughen the regime." A trial of 11 asylum seekers for their alleged role in the incident ended with all cleared of arson and just four found guilty of lesser offences of affray and violent disorder. The trial judge criticised Group 4 as "ill-equipped" to deal with the situation.

Daily Mirror, 8 December 2003: 'Guards: Refugees are 'scum of the scum'' by Nick Sommerlad

They are fearful women asylum seekers whose search for a safe haven has failed - but to their guards they are the "scum of the scum". A senior security officer did not hide his racist contempt for those in his "care" at notorious Yarl's Wood detention centre. He told me: "The Indians and Pakis are all right.

"But Jamaicans are drug-dealing pieces of s**t. Algerians are the slimiest bastards in the world - all of them. They're all terrorists, the ones we get anyway. And the Chinese are evil little bastards." Others called the 60 detainees "bitches" and "scrubbers". Yarl's Wood is the last chance saloon for failed asylum seekers before most are returned to the homeland they were desperate to flee. Some may be genuine victims of a miscarriage of justice, suicidal at the thought of what awaits them after they are deported. Others may well be liars caught out before they vanish into the community. But all deserve to be treated with dignity.

Sadly some staff seem to have taken Home Secretary David Blunkett at his word when he pledged to toughen the regime following last year's riot by inmates. Members of racist groups are barred from working at the centre. But a BNP candidate was given a job there for a few months in 2001 and opinions I heard would not have been out of place at a far right rally. One officer said bluntly: "They're bitches in here. They're here for a reason." Another, referring to Nigerian women, said: "They're very religious, calling you 'sir'. That's all right, it's showing some respect.

"They dress up on Sunday in their hats and everything to go to church. Then they go back to being the useless scrubbers they are." On another occasion I was told: "We have to watch out for incest. It's part of their culture. They'll stick it up anything." Yarl's Wood is run by the heavily criticised Group 4 security firm which boasts it has been "recognised by the Home Office for leadership in implementation of the Human Rights Act".

Advertising for new recruits, the company says: "The ability to communicate well and to establish positive relationships with people from many nationalities, faiths and cultures is an essential part of this interesting and varied job. "Although there can be a language barrier, bridges can be built with a simple smile."

There was not much sign of bridge building in my seven weeks of undercover training as a detention custody officer. In sessions on cultural diversity, bullying, race relations and child protection one officer said: "Your two favourite letters of the alphabet when you're working will be RD - removals directions. That means the bastard is off. YOUR least favourite will be TA - temporary admission. That means let the f*****s out. It happens all the time and always to the pieces of s**t." During another session on human rights, trainees were subjected to a right wing rant.

They were told: "Now they (asylum seekers) are rowing over in dinghies. Sink them, that's what the Navy should be doing. "I'm afraid we're softly, softly. We used to be a hard nation. People used to be afraid of us. "There's a study that in 25 years whites will be in the minority. English won't be the first language. "We're losing our culture because we're soft, because we signed up to the Human Rights Act." It was astonishing that staff felt free to use such poisonous language. It was even more disturbing that no one challenged them. Far from sympathising with the detainees' plight, one recruit declared: "The ones who come here and don't stop crying really piss me off. I'm like 'Shut up!' They only do it to get attention."

There was not a murmur of dissent from other trainees. One agreed, and added: "Crocodile tears." Horrified by such talk, a black colleague confided: "There are racists here. I can't see why management don't do something about it." Mr Blunkett insists Yarl's Wood is not a prison. However it is run by a former prison governor. Staff are trained as if they were jail officers and prison service "control and restraint" techniques are taught. The regime is strict. Trainees were told: "No mollycoddling. At 7am it's 'Bang, bang, get up!' You want them up and tiring themselves out. It's good for the centre.

"Don't let them sleep all day. Talk to them, annoy them, knacker them out. It's the best way." Many of the people here are desperate and confused, yearning for some sign of human kindness. But I was trained to avoid sympathising with inmates and to disbelieve their horrifying stories of hardship and torture. I was warned: "Don't befriend them. Other officers will turn on you. You're not here for that. "If you want to, join the visiting committee. Get out of the job and join the 'tree-huggers'."

An immigration officer who works for the Home Office told new recruits: "If they're in here it's almost certain that their case has been looked at and refused. A story that you're told by one of the detainees may seem very convincing. Don't get involved. "The initial things you hear sound terrible. But they don't stand up. "Unfortunately many people do break the rules when they come here. If they've been prepared to break the law, then telling a lie is nothing." At first sight, the centre looks like a travel lodge motel. There are facilities, including a library, gym, shop and lessons in English, maths and computing skills.

The razor wire and CCTV cameras spell a different message. During my training I heard countless stories of violent and intimidating inmates. But I found the detainees - mostly women in their 20s - were subdued and timid. All were depressed, some were suicidal. While I was at at the centre a Jamaican women tried to hang herself. An African girl stayed in her room banging her head against the wall, crying: "Just let me die." The Home Office fines Group 4 £10,000 for each suicide. As a result, detainees thought to be at risk are liable to be strip- searched and placed in "removal from association" areas where they are kept from other inmates. In "suicide awareness" training, I was told: "They're cunning. Some keep razor blades in their mouths. "We had one who swallowed a blade broken off a disposable razor, passed it out and used it. "If they ask for a pen to write a letter, watch them. Some break the pen and use that to cut themselves. Those people that want to do it will do anything." Suicidal detainees are checked at regular intervals. Recruits are told to look round their door, give them a phone call or even - as a cruel joke - tell them they have a letter.

A staff member said: "They'll soon come skipping down the corridor. Once you see they're still alive you can just say 'Nah' - it all saves time." Not all staff are so callous. Some sympathise with the inmates and are unhappy with the ways detainees are branded disruptive. One told me: "It's not just for shouting or being violent. If at the end of a six-hour asylum meeting they say 'You f*****g bastards,' then that's considered to be disruptive. I don't think that's right." The Government has dropped its target of sending 30,000 failed applicants home every year.

BUT more and more cases are being turned down and more hopefuls than ever are being returned to the last place they want to be - their homeland. Tragically, there is evidence of people being wrongly detained. I was told of one man brought in by accident. He had lived in Scotland for 25 years, was "very well-educated", had his own business and was married with children.

Despite having a British passport he was picked up at an airport coming back from a wedding and taken to Yarl's Wood. He was released when the blunder was uncovered. I was also told of a Polish man, married with children, who had been living in Britain for 15 years before he was plucked from his home and taken to the centre. An officer told me: "His wife found out he was having an affair and reported him. So he was picked up and ended up in here. "There are a few of them like that. Generally a friend or someone they know has reported them." I also heard tales of disturbed inmates who should have been receiving mental care instead of being held in detention. One Iranian man used an iron to burn himself. A colleague explained: "He had ironed his arms, chest, legs, feet and even his testicles."

According to another workmate, another detainee used to walk around for 12 hours at a time. The workmate said: "He shouldn't have been in here, he had mental problems. They let him out in Bedford. He left his bags where he was dropped and just walked for four days before being arrested."

Daily Mirror, 8 December 2003: 'Three warnings... then smack!' by Nick Sommerlad

Staff at Yarl's Wood boasted of using violence and intimidation on detainees while colleagues turned a blind eye to the brutality. I listened with horror as senior officers sadistically relished rumours they would soon be able to punch, kick and even headbutt difficult inmates under new control and restraint plans by Home Secretary David Blunkett for the centre. And a psychologist brought in to toughen up trainees after last year's riots said security firm Group 4 had been too soft on troublemakers in the camp and he branded detainees "bastards who would let us down". During my training I was warned: "There is none of the namby pamby stuff we had in the past. Three warnings and then wham.

"That's how it should be. You lose the momentum. You are in there, you are hyper, you want to go for it. You're not allowed to hit them. Only blocking moves. But the blocking moves can hurt. They can break limbs. You will always defeat them, no matter how big they are. You will have more teams in the corridor behind them and you will take them out. It will be done." And a senior officer warned recruits: "With control and restraint the idea is to cause pain." Another said unpopular detainees were sometimes beaten up and any evidence destroyed.

We were told: "We do that especially with someone we don't like and give him a good crank. The tape ran out, Your Honour. The battery ran out, Your Honour." One worker confessed to using excessive violence on detainees while a colleague moved a security camera so the attacks would not be captured on film. Many officers are large, muscular, tattooed, ex-military men. Some relish their fights with detainees.

One shocking admission came from a member of staff who admitted beating one of the rioters before last year's fire then covering it up during a probe. After a tussle in the corridor, the officer followed his colleagues to a segregation cell where there were no CCTV cameras. I was told the inmate "got a pasting" and was "splattered against the wall with a riot shield". The 19-stone officer confessed to using all his body weight when restraining the naked asylum seeker in a figure of eight lock on the floor. The stricken man was unable to move for 10 minutes. Another staff member told recruits how he used force against a detained lawyer. He said: "He was always on about his human rights. Always hated me, totally hated me.

"It was because I once told him, 'I will f*** you up, tomorrow.' I was involved in the control and restraint team that wrapped him up the next day. It was brilliant." A supervisor admitted some officers seemed to get a kick out of provoking detainees - giving them an excuse to use restraint techniques. He said: "Control and restraint hurts. You will hurt them. During the training, treat us like a detainee. We expect to be hurt or you have not been trained right.

"We are doing it because we want to make them hurt. We are actually assaulting him. It is only because of the job we are doing we can do it." Under Blunkett's control and restrain powers - used by the prison service on unruly inmates - officers may use spontaneous violence on detainees if they are attacked. Yarl's Wood manager, former prison governor Ray Reverley, brought in psychologist David Boag to retrain staff as the centre prepares to expand capacity from 60 to 400 asylum seekers.

We were taught 25 ways to spot a psychopath and played a tape of Britain's most dangerous inmate Charles Bronson singing I Believe as he held a knife to a prison officer's throat. Boag said violence was a last resort, but added: "I am going to train you in how to deal with the really nasty people. Group 4 started treating people humanely, teaching them about duty of care. That's fine, as far as it goes. If you start treating these people humanely they think it's a pushover.

"Sympathy comes between sh*t and syphilis in the dictionary." As the session concluded, he declared: "I'll tell you Boag's law. It is this...detainees invariably let you down. And that's the way it is. Don't get upset about it. They are bastards basically." Most of the recruits seemed excited about learning the control and restraint techniques.

Group 4 discovered my fake CV the week before our four-day course was due to begin in the gym. But I had been told to expect to go home battered and bruised after sessions. In an earlier one, riot shields were smashed as instructors attacked trainees with pick-axe handles.

Daily Mirror, 8 December 2003: "I get keys before risk is checked' by Nick Sommerlad

For seven weeks I worked undetected at Yarl's Wood detention centre. Like any other journalist a simple internet search of my name would have given me away immediately. With five years of my CV falsified and the referees I had given told not to lie, my fake story would unravel easily. I was told I would have three levels of security checks. The first, a criminal record search, I passed. Then Group 4 would check my CV and references to see if my employment history was correct. Finally, the Home Office would vet me to assess if I was a risk. In reality, I started work before any of these checks were carried out. In my first week I was given keys to any door in Yarl's Wood and was left alone for hours in a control centre monitoring detainee visits.

The day after my colleague Ryan Parry exposed security risks at Buckingham Palace I was summoned to Yarl's Wood after work and introduced to a man from Group 4's UK headquarters. He said they had found the mark I claimed I had got for my degree was false and told me Group 4 couldn't prove any of my previous jobs, including two that were true.

When asked if I had falsified my application I said I had. I was then sacked.

Daily Mirror, 9. December 2003: 'Mirror prompts full 'racism' inquiry' by Bob Roberts, Nick Sommerlad And Jan Disley

A full investigation into the "shocking" culture of racism at asylum centres was ordered by ministers last night, after the Daily Mirror's expose. Earlier yesterday Home Secretary David Blunkett had tried to keep the revelations at arms length.

But the Home Office backtracked after pressure from MPs of all parties, and groups working with asylum seekers who demanded that the culture of abuse was stamped out. Immigration Minister Bev Hughes said she would not tolerate the abuse found at Yarl's Wood detention centre.

Ms Hughes said: "The Mirror investigation raises some very serious issues. The Government expects those who run centres like Yarl's Wood on our behalf to treat immigration detainees with decency and respect. "We have made it clear we will not tolerate racism in any form and have banned BNP members from working at immigration removal centres. "Today I have asked for an urgent independent inquiry to be carried out. "I'm sure the Mirror will want to co-operate fully and I look forward to receiving a copy of their evidence."

Mirror reporter Nick Sommerlad worked undercover at Yarl's Wood for seven weeks and yesterday described how racist guards from private security firm Group 4 boasted of beating terrified asylum seekers. Group 4 last night thanked the Mirror. It will begin questioning staff at the centre near Bedford today. A spokesman said: "We have to have structures in place, but the structures rely on people playing their part. "In the light of what we have learned our inquiry is just beginning. We are considering all matters carefully."

Professor David Wilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said racism was still rife among jail guards, security staff and the police. He added: "Racism has to be stamped out of our culture. "We have to prick the balloon of these criminal justice agencies." The Prison Reform Trust's Juliet Lyon said: "If this is what a private contractor can do in a detention centre, can we have any confidence in their ability to run safe prisons?"

The Lib Dem's said it made a mockery of Government claims "centres provide a safe environment for asylum seekers", while the Tories said the allegations "must be fully investigated". Last night a Home Office spokesman said: "The allegations are taken very seriously. We require Group 4's staff abide by race relations legislation." Meanwhile, David Boag, the psychologist who branded asylum seekers "bastards" told the Mirror that he did not deny using the word but insisted it had been taken out of context.

Daily Mirror, 12 December 2003 by Paul Gilfeather and Nick Sommerlad

the home office will investigate the daily mirror's security expose at yarl's wood immigration centre, it was announced last night. immigration minister beverley hughes has ordered a "full and independent" inquiry after we revealed race-hate bullying by staff. home office spokesman lord bassam told the house of lords: "we take these allegations very seriously. it is of the utmost importance that staff at immigration removal centres should carry out their duties both professionally and sensitively."

He also said the inquiry's findings "will be made fully public". Global Solutions Ltd - formerly Group 4 - which runs the centre for the Home Office, has already launched a probe. Meanwhile, a psychologist who described detainees as "bastards" has been suspended. David Boag, hired to retrain staff after last year's fire at Yarl's Wood, told new recruits: "Sympathy comes between shit and syphilis in the dictionary."

His comments were revealed after Mirror man Nick Sommerlad worked undercover at the Bedfordshire centre. Global Solutions' John Bates said: "David Boag will not be undertaking any further training duties until the outcome of the inquiry is established." Mr Boag has claimed his remarks were taken out of context. The firm is quizzing officers over the Mirror's claims staff boasted of beating detainees. It declined to comment until the probe is completed.