Julie Ward on the scandal of women held at Hassockfield Derwentside IRC
It was in January 2021 when County Durham Labour members first learned that the Home Office had decided to take back the site of the notorious former Medomsley Detention Centre (for boys) for the purpose of detaining women asylum seekers. This facility (which had been renamed Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in 1999) was largely seen to be a replacement for Yarl’s Wood, which had attracted its own notoriety since first opening in 2001. The renamed Hassockfield centre finally closed in 2015, but not before 14-year-old Adam Rickwood from Burnley had taken his own life during his incarceration within its walls.
The site is associated with historic institutional violence going back decades, with hundreds of former Medomsley victims coming forward as part of Operation Seabrook to give evidence of abuse by the staff. Despite several high profile court cases and convictions of former employees, calls for a full public enquiry have recently been dismissed by the Government.
The Home Office’s plan to turn the site into a Category 3 prison for women asylum seekers is not only in direct contradiction to the Government’s previous pronouncements, which had suggested that fewer detention facilities would be needed, but is also a slap in the face for local people, who were hoping to lay to rest the memory of abuse on their doorstep through the construction of a new housing development on the site with a pocket park. Indeed, Durham County Council had already granted planning permission to Homes England for 127 new dwellings when the Ministry of Justice announced it was taking the site back into the detention estate. The repurposing of the site also rides roughshod over local democracy, with the county council being sidelined and limited opportunities for scrutiny under cover of Covid.
A dedicated campaign group called No To Hassockfield was quickly established, bringing together activists from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions, initially in the hope that we might prevent the centre from opening. However, in late December 2021, we learned that approximately a dozen women had been moved there with plans for up to 84 women in total to be incarcerated, all of whom would be deemed by the Home Office as suitable for deportation due to their immigration status. We know that many of these women would be extremely vulnerable – victims of abuse, trafficking and various forms of gender-based violence. We also know that there are alternatives to detention, which often serves to retraumatise victims of torture and abuse. Newcastle-based Action Foundation carried out a UNHCR research project in 2021 which found that “it is more humane and significantly less expensive to support vulnerable asylum seekers in the community as an alternative to keeping them in detention centres“. The Home Office funded this pilot but appears reluctant to act on the recommendations.
We have received excellent support from various Labour politicians, including Lord Alf Dubs, who attended one of our first campaign meetings and reminded us that “no-one is illegal”. Mary Foy MP (Durham City) was on the case months before the centre opened, tabling written questions in parliament. In May 2022, she spoke at our national demo in front of Durham Cathedral along with veteran human rights lawyer Margaret Owen. In December 2022, Kate Osborne MP (Jarrow) called for the centre to be shut down after she made a visit with members of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Her visit coincided with the publication of HMIP’s first inspection report, which highlighted various issues including a high number of women reporting feeling suicidal, male supervision of at-risk women, and concerning ‘use of force’ incidents.
The local Tory MP, Richard Holden, describes the women as “criminals” and “illegals” whilst all the while promoting the immigration removal centre as an economic opportunity for the area. The centre is managed by Mitie, whose former CEO is now a Tory peer. The company (which won multiple Government contracts during the pandemic) posted half-year profits of £50 million for March to September 2022. A significant proportion of their turnover derives from ‘care and custody’. Mitie is one of the companies implicated in the recent Manston scandal which saw shocking levels of overcrowding and chaos at the Kent facility established to process newly arrived asylum seekers. In November 2022, a group of No To Hassockfield campaigners joined activists from the North West to mount a protest at Mitie’s office near Manchester Airport, in solidarity with those protesting at Manston.
Over the past two years, we have become an efficient, democratic and closely knit community of activists. We regularly work with organisations such as Medical Justice and Women For Refugee Women, who themselves took the Home Office to court regarding inadequate access to justice for the women detained in the centre. The judge ruled in favour of the Home Office, but that will not stop the many organisations and individuals involved in our campaign from our avowed aim to force closure of the centre. What we lack in campaign experience we make up for with our commitment to speak up for the women imprisoned in the centre and our passion for a fairer, more just society, where everyone seeking sanctuary will be welcomed in our communities.