By Karen McVeigh
The government's recent announcement that it would close the family section of the Yarl's Wood immigration centre as part of its plan to end child detention was universally welcomed; MPs, children's groups and human rights groups had long condemned the "moral outrage" of locking them up. But it gave scant comfort to the women detained in the complex's remaining three wings, many of whom have spent long periods separated from their children.
Six months after the start of a hunger strike by up to 70 women at Yarl's Wood, to highlight what they say was unfair and degrading treatment, the Guardian has spoken to several of those who took part.
They are fighting a legal battle to gain official recognition that the protest even took place – something the Home Office and the private security firm which runs the Bedfordshire facility dispute – and to secure an inquiry into their allegations of violence and racial abuse by guards.
Behind the locked doors of the prettily named Avocet, Bunting and Dove wings in Yarl's Wood are many extremely vulnerable women, among them victims of torture and rape, and those who have fled domestic violence, destitution or both.
Seven people spoke to the Guardian, all but one of them mothers, whose children were mainly either British-born or had spent most of their lives here.
One of the women, Shelleyann Stupart, said: "The hunger strike showed the world what's going on there, who we are and why we ended up being detained. Many have been deported but those of us they can't send back will bear witness to the injustices we suffered. We are determined to win justice for the violent and vicious way we were treated."
Stupart, mother of a nine-year-old boy born in the UK, was granted bail in June. She said she took part in the hunger strike, which for some women lasted for six weeks, because she believed vulnerable women were being detained unnecessarily. Stupart also objects to mothers being detained for long periods away from their children.
Why not, she argues, grant them bail or tag them, so that they can look after their children while their claims are being processed? Home Office guidelines state that detention is appropriate in cases where removal is imminent, or within a "reasonable period", or where there is a risk that a person might abscond.
The women who spoke to the Guardian had been detained for between four months to over a year. Two have since been granted leave to remain by a judge, although one is awaiting a Home Office appeal against the ruling.
In her latest report on Yarl's Wood, in March, the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, was critical of the lack of attention to the needs of women, 10% of whom have been held for longer than six months. Many of those who took part in the protest have been deported. Five, including Stupart and three others accused of being ringleaders, were sent to prison. Two, from Jamaica, remain in Holloway prison, while others are still in Yarl's Wood.
The Home Office and Serco, the security firm which runs Yarl's Wood, deny there was even a hunger strike, saying that the women had been seen using vending machines. They also deny detainees' claims of racial abuse and violence on 8 February, the day of an initial mass protest.
But the women's testimonies are strikingly similar and they stand by their accounts. Most were locked in an airless corridor for up to eight hours, without access to food, water, toilet facilities or medical care. Four others – accused of being "ringleaders" – were locked up in separate rooms. Many women collapsed, two were left vomiting and two were injured after guards with riot shields tried to stop them from escaping out of the window into a yard, they claim. Some were racially abused, they say.
Verna Joseph, 36, a single mother of eight from St Lucia, was granted leave to remain in Britain in January on the grounds her life would be in danger if she was sent back. The Home Office appealed and she spent a further five months in Yarl's Wood on top of the five she had already spent there fighting her case.
Joseph said she saw a friend, Denise, knocked to the ground by an officer with a riot shield. She said that medical records would reveal the extent of the hunger strike, which carried on for weeks into March. "They knew people weren't eating," said Joseph.
She added: "When I was in Yarl's Wood I wanted to go back to prison. I saw a woman being escorted, naked, to her flight. I saw a woman hanging herself. The way they treat people in there, they don't even treat animals that way. Just imagine, if you have been to court and you have won, but they are keeping you in there and you don't know for how long."
Olive Noble, 50, fled Jamaica to Britain with her son 13 years ago in fear of her life after witnessing the murder of her brother's girlfriend. She was sent to Yarl's Wood after serving a four and a half-year year sentence for intent to supply drugs, after what she claims was an unfair trial. Noble was also granted leave to remain in Britain last October, but the Home Office appealed against the decision and she is awaiting a high court ruling.
"If you are a migrant, you don't have any rights," said Noble, from Yarl's Wood. "An officer called me a black monkey and I put in a complaint last July but the officer told them he was running a joke with me. To them, calling me a monkey is nothing because I'm an immigrant, but if I do it, I would be put in segregation."
Noble alleges that, during the protest on 8 February, she saw a staff member refuse medical aid to a woman who was vomiting. "A woman was shouting, 'I'm dying, I'm dying.' A nurse, outside the door, said, 'Open the door,' but the staff member said, 'No. They will live to regret what they are doing today.'"
Denise McNeil, 36, was transferred to the centre after completing a 12-month prison sentence for possession of cannabis. She fled to Britain to escape domestic abuse in Jamaica, where her brother was murdered in a gangland feud.
She claims her life is in danger if she is deported, but says she is in a Catch-22 nightmare: if she agrees to deportation she could be reunited with her British-born seven-year-old son, Tri-anri. But to take him with her would be to remove him from everything he knows, also putting him at risk of harm.
From Holloway prison, where she was sent after the protest, McNeil said: "I would speak to him on the phone inside Yarl's Wood but it was expensive. I would say, 'It's bedtime now' and he would say, 'Why can't you take the phone into bed?' and I would go into my room and look at his photo and cry."
McNeil claims that during the protest, she was punched, thrown to the ground and assaulted by an officer, a claim backed up by three other detainees. She says she suffered a slipped disc and bruising in the attack. The Home Office denies the assault took place.
Cristel Amiss, from Black Woman's Rape Action Project, which has sought to help the women fight their claims, said: "Hunger strike has been historically the protest of incarceration. Women in Yarl's Wood have done it before, in 2007 and before that, in 2005. It has won them huge support and recognition over their treatment."
Francis Swaine, of Leigh Day and Co, representing Joseph alongside a further 14 women, said Serco and the Home Office were "rewriting history". She said: "They don't deny that the women associated but they totally deny that the women were locked up in a corridor. They claim that they were given the opportunity to come and go as they wanted."
A further 12 women, including Stupart, represented by law firm Fisher Meredith, are seeking damages.
Last night, a spokeswoman for the Home Office said that its position remained unchanged. "There was no hunger strike. Detainees who were not eating food were using the vending machines."
She added that the Independent Monitoring Board and an immigration review had found no evidence of physical or verbal abuse.
"We remain of the view that an independent investigation is not required and the detainees have a comprehensive complaints service available to them, including the prison and probation ombudsman."