By Mark Townsend
A woman who went on hunger strike in protest at her detention in the Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre claims she has been silenced by the state after being held in a prison without charge for almost a year.
Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, was transferred from the centre in Bedfordshire to Holloway prison in London last February after her hunger strike ended in violence when she was allegedly assaulted by Yarl's Wood staff. Her lawyer said her imprisonment was highly unusual as McNeil, a mother, could not be classified as a risk to the public and so be legally detained in prison.
Hani Zubeidi, of London-based solicitors Fadiga and Co, believes his client was singled out to deter other detainees from speaking out. Campaigners say that McNeil was hurt in scuffles with immigration staff on 8 February 2010 and that she has not received adequate medical attention for her injuries and now finds it painful to lie down. The Observer reported allegations that asylum seekers were beaten by guards later that month.
"The issue is: why she is being kept in criminal detention?" said Zubeidi. "It is not warranted and obviously more costly. She was identified as a ringleader at Yarl's Wood, so they do not want her. But is she a risk to the public? No."
McNeil's youngest son, eight-year-old Tre-Anri, is said to be traumatised by his mother being locked up in prison and is receiving psychiatric care. Inmates are not allowed mobile phones and McNeil, in a letter she wrote from prison, said she found it difficult to keep in touch with her son, who is a British national. "This country says it puts children first, but it's clear it doesn't," she wrote. "How can you separate a mother from her child for so long? I should be released to look after my children – that's every mother's right. I think they moved me from Yarl's Wood to cover up what they'd done: to stop my ability to talk out."
The Yarl's Wood hunger strike lasted for five weeks until an outbreak of trouble during which McNeil claims she was beaten and then put in isolation for four weeks before being moved to Holloway, Britain's largest women's jail.
Two other alleged ringleaders – Sheree Wilson from Jamaica and Aminata Camara from Guinea in west Africa – were also moved to Holloway. All three are expecting bail hearings this week.
McNeil, who has lived in the UK for more than 10 years, was arrested in September 2008 for possession of cannabis for personal use. She served a six-month prison sentence and was detained in Yarl's Wood upon her release in January 2009. It is now more than two years since she was able to care for her son.
She is awaiting the outcome of a judicial review of her case after being refused leave to remain in the UK. Her lawyers say her child's welfare would be affected if she returned to Jamaica. Her brother was killed by gangs in March 2010 following his forced removal from the UK.
Cristel Amiss of the Black Women's Rape Action Project said: "When people stand up against authority they're targeted and that's the price they are paying. The hunger strikers demanded the immediate release from detention of all mothers separated from their children, and all vulnerable people, including survivors of rape and other torture."
A high court judge has ruled that two mothers and their children were unlawfully detained at Yarl's Wood, putting the spotlight on the government's pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centres by May.
It is understood the Home Office identified the women as troublemakers and detained them in Holloway while their immigration cases were reviewed. Officials say there is no evidence of an assault by immigration staff at Yarl's Wood following the hunger strike.