The government has been drawing up secret plans to increase the numbers of asylum seekers held in prisons.
With Ann Widdecombe proposing to lock up all refugees in what are euphemistically called ‘secure reception centres’, Jack Straw is responding with the promise of new immigration detention centres. But in the meantime he has ordered the creation of 500 new places in normal prisons, on top of the existing 330 places at Rochester and Haslar prisons. So far places have been allocated at Belmarsh, Bullingdon, Wandsworth, Winchester, Holme House, Highdown, Lincoln and Liverpool. The plan is that asylum seekers will generally be held in separate wings from the general prison population. However they will be subject to the same prison rules and face prison officers who are trained to contain convicted criminals.
Perhaps Jack Straw should have listened to the experiences of inmates at the notorious Delta and Echo wings of Rochester prison before ordering more asylum seekers to be held within the normal prison regime. Those who have spent time there, sometimes over a year, speak of treatment that is worse than for convicted criminals in the same prison. Cells are four by four metres, toilet included, with two inmates per cell. Echo wing houses 115 inmates while Delta houses about 65. Such is Rochester’s reputation for brutality that staff in other detention centres use the threat of transfer to Rochester as a way of controlling ‘difficult’ inmates.
Pierre, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, spent five months inside Rochester, often being locked in his cell for days on end. He has since been transferred to Haslar. Pierre says he found date-expired food in the Haslar kitchen which should have been thrown out six months before. ‘When I asked the kitchen staff why expired foodstuffs were being cooked and given to detainees, the answer was “do I know how much the government spends on immigration detainees?” After this I was no longer asked to work in the kitchen.’
‘At Rochester’, Pierre told us, ‘we were locked up for eighteen hours a day. When there was staff training you were banged up for twenty-four hours in a cell. It was stressful. I know of six inmates who, after months of incarceration, became mentally deranged. They were taken to mental homes. Other inmates attempted serious self-harm but nobody cared. Medication was a forgotten issue.’
Paul, an asylum seeker from Tanzania who has been detained in Haslar prison, also points to the mental effects of prison. As he put it, ‘the cage is one place where sanity is a full-time job. I tried to keep going but I came very close to losing it. I saw fellow asylum seekers going clinically insane and trying to commit suicide. You think that these are scenes which should trigger a human response, but not when it is asylum seekers. We never found out what happened to those who tried to hang themselves.’
Both Paul and Pierre say they have been racially abused by prison officers, being told, for example, that ‘you will all be deported back to the monkeys’. Pierre says he has also witnessed a serious assault on a Romanian asylum seeker by five Echo wing staff members at Rochester. People are scared to speak out, he says, for fear of being segregated or having their asylum claim turned down.
With the numbers of asylum seekers held in prisons set to double over the next few months, many more people will be subjected to these barbarous regimes.