At the time of going to press, it was not possible to say if the destruction of the Yarl's Wood detention centre was the most bone-headed fiasco in the recent history of the justice system. The cases against the last of the alleged rioters were still being heard at Harrow Crown Court, and sweeping judgements must be avoided until verdicts are returned. All the cautious observer could say with certainty was that the Yarl's Wood affair had already produced the gutting of the largest lock-up for asylum-seekers in Europe during the worst prison violence in Britain since the Strangeways riot of 1991, along with: an attempt by brave, risk-taking penal capitalists to make the public pick up their bills; police suspicions that the same brave, risk-taking penal capitalists had a case of corporate manslaughter to answer; a formal complaint to the Law Society against one of the priciest law firms in London; and the collapse of the cases against many of the alleged rioters because the evidence against them wasn't fit to be presented to a court.
Yarl's Wood had barely opened when it was wrecked. The prison, near Bedford, was meant to hold 900 inmates, but had taken in only 383 when it was set alight. The government was intending to fill every place. Yarl's Wood was to have been at the centre of its campaign to organise the mass deportation of failed asylum-seekers. At the time, even critics of new Labour conceded that its plans were not necessarily authoritarian. Everyone knew that when an asylum-seeker's claim was rejected he had the option of disappearing into the slums. It seemed reasonable for the Home Office to prevent him from running off by holding him for a few days or weeks in a secure departure lounge while his expulsion was arranged. But the superficial reasonableness of ministers took a knock when the detail was examined. Emma Ginn, who has helped run a magnificent support group for the men and women who were dumped in Yarl's Wood, pointed out that on 14 February 2002, only 46 detainees had dates for deportation. The centre held women, children, amputees and people who had been banged up for years because the Home Office thought that they might abscond. Most did not know when they would be freed.
Despite what you read in the press and see on the BBC, asylum-seekers are not criminals. They have the right to make a claim for sanctuary. When their claims are rejected, they are guilty of nothing more than failing to convince the authorities that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. To the disgust of the tabloids, Yarl's Wood appeared to recognise that it wasn't dealing with hardened crooks. It didn't seem such a bad place. Doors to the cells could be locked by the guards, but were usually left open. Most cells had en suite bathrooms; they were more Holiday Inn than Holloway. Inmates were given pocket money to spend on toiletries, fags, sweets and drinks. There was a multicultural menu, multi-faith prayer rooms and a multilingual library. The manager of Yarl's Wood, David Watson, said he was in charge of a "caring and secure environment". But it was still a prison, and not only because razor wire stopped the inmates leaving. They were handcuffed when they went to hospitals or immigration tribunal hearings. They were counted off in roll-calls. They could be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night when the time came to deport them. And, this being a Labour government, their prison had to be a private prison because it was the party's belief that only corporations had the entrepreneurial flair necessary to manage a dynamic public institution.
Yarl's Wood was a physical manifestation of the outrage against asylum-seekers. It was thrown up in a hurry to placate public anger. For all the talk of a "caring and secure environment", a basic precaution was ignored in the interests of saving money and cutting corners: the jail didn't have a sprinkler system fitted. This turned out to be an expensive saving.
All sides agree that the fires began after Eunice Edozieh, a 55-year-old Nigerian, tried to get help from the private health centre that Group 4 had installed. The company said she became hysterical, bit nurses and had to be restrained. Edozieh, who was suffering haemorrhoids and a first-degree uterine prolapse, said she had tried all day to get help but was told to stop making a nuisance of herself. At 7.30pm, she went to pray in the prison chapel, but was refused admission. Denied the consolation of her faith, she became angry. Group 4 guards rushed at her. Someone shouted "Down" and she was pinned to the ground. Female inmates came to Edozieh's defence, but couldn't release her. She was dragged along the ground and locked up. Male inmates saw how she was being treated and all hell broke loose. Group 4 managers told their officers to lock in prisoners, an order which turned the prison into a potential death trap as arsonists started fires. Guards locked up inmates; inmates locked up guards. A woman was raped. A group of detainees beat up two guards, took their keys and made a break for freedom. Forty went on the run. (Five remain uncaught.)
A furious David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, told the Commons that the government had taken asylum-seekers from common prisons to a far better place, only to find "that our reward is that they burn down a substantial part of the facility". So intent on destruction were the ingrates that they "prevented the fire service from getting into the buildings". Blunkett's intervention brought the first discordant notes to what had been a straightforward story of rampage and mayhem. The Bedfordshire Fire Service said there had been a "potentially catastrophic" delay in tackling the Yarl's Wood fire, caused not by the detainees but by Group 4 management, which had refused to let officers into the prison for an hour. The police told a similar story. The riot began at about 7.30pm, but Group 4 did not give the police operational control of the jail until 1am the next day.
The first duty of a governor of a prison or detention centre is to maintain order. Even though the prison population has all but doubled since Tony Blair and Michael Howard, the Tory home secretary of the time, began their arms race on crime - from 43,000 in 1993 to 73,000 today - the jails have stayed calm because the authorities place control above all else. Governors who blame prisoners for rioting are like doctors who blame patients for dying; they may be right, but that's not the point. For six months after the Yarl's Wood fire, the police believed that the bodies of incinerated inmates might be found in the wreckage. They treated the fire as a potential case of corporate manslaughter until forensic scientists and archaeologists assured them there were no human remains at the site.
Meanwhile, Group 4 did little to endear itself to the Bedfordshire Constabulary. Its insurers followed the logic of profit maximisation and blew a hole in new Labour's justification for passing public services to private contractors. In Treasury theory, the risk of a venture going wrong was meant to be taken along with the contract. In the case of Yarl's Wood, Group 4 had gambled on making profits at the public's expense and lost.
However, Group 4's insurers unearthed an obscure piece of legislation, the Riot Damages Act 1886, which allows companies to sue the police for riot damage. Group 4 has claimed not merely for the cost of rebuilding the detention centre, but also for the loss of revenue brought about by its closure. The Bedfordshire police are, the insurers' lawyers insist, responsible for a prison over which they had no control and for a riot that Group 4 prevented its officers from tackling for five hours. If Bedfordshire police lose their case, the public will once again have to pay for private mismanagement.
Nevertheless, there was a riot. There was a rape. Asylum-seekers did break out. If the criminal justice system can't keep order, it must enforce the law and punish wrongdoers. Yet the prosecution of alleged offenders at Yarl's Wood has been peculiarly difficult. On the one hand, Group 4 staff were witnesses to the alleged crimes of 11 asylum-seekers who were charged with violent disorder and affray (but not rape). On the other, they knew that the police were looking for evidence of corporate manslaughter and might want them to stand witness against their employer. Then there was the enthusiasm of the Home Office to deport as many asylum-seekers as possible. Despite the protests of MPs, former Yarl's Wood detainees who had evidence that defence lawyers said the court needed to hear were thrown out of Britain.
The case has been full of strange twists. Harrow Crown Court has heard of repeated acts of kindness from the men the Crown Prosecution Service has charged. Ricardo Rocci, a Group 4 guard, told the court in a statement that he was "in fear of his life" when the violence broke out. The smoke from the fires did not help. He was an asthmatic who was struggling for breath and needed help to get out. He described how two of the defendants comforted him, protected him from other inmates and helped him to safety.
Meanwhile, with the threat hanging over them that they may be charged with manslaughter, Group 4's management had every incentive to worry about what their underlings said to the police. In a statement agreed between prosecution and defence, the court heard that Group 4 had instructed Norton Rose, a firm of expensive City solicitors. The "suggestion that witnesses may wish to discuss notes and statements with managers or with the company's solicitors [was] wholly improper", the court heard. "A formal complaint has been lodged with the Law Society about the conduct of Norton Rose."
Group 4 also arranged for witnesses to be trained by a legal agency called Bond Solon. "Leading counsel for the Crown advised that, in his view, such training should not take place and that, if it did, proceedings against Group 4 and Bond Solon for contempt of court might be commenced," the statement read. "The training stopped at once but 16 witnesses had already been trained before the prosecution became aware of what was happening."
Group 4 originally held 50 people after the riots. Eleven were charged. One pleaded guilty to affray. Five have had all charges against them dropped. Five others remain on trial at the time of writing, although the hearings were reaching their conclusion.
In the late 1990s, there was a smaller riot at a detention centre for asylum-seekers in Oxfordshire, called Campsfield. In that case, the charges against all alleged offenders were thrown out by the courts. Campsfield was managed by Group 4.
As I said, it is too early to know what the conclusion of this story will be until the trial is over. Group 4 is confident it will be free to carry on as if nothing has happened. It has already placed advertisements in the Bedfordshire newspapers urging locals to become guards at Yarl's Wood when it reopens this autumn - "£6.95 per hour. No experience necessary".
But on the basis of what we already know, it is clear that Group 4 is unfit to care for one more asylum-seeker or to receive one more penny of public money.