Yarl's Wood: An object lesson in how evil happens

Bad people, bad management and institutional failure all contributed to what happened at the Yarl's Wood detention centre.

You hear a lot of things when you’re a journalist. And ninety-five per cent of the time, you know they’re not true, or wildly exaggerated. And every so often you think they might be true, but you don’t know how on earth you’re going to stand them up, and you also know that unless you’ve got a watertight case, you’re going to get your publication’s arse sued off.

That smoking gun: who knows when it’ll turn up? All you can do is keep making inquiries, bide your time, report on other things - and maybe your biggest fear is ending up like one of those old Fleet Street soaks on the documentaries about Jimmy Savile: “Sure, we all knew, but what could we do? We were just journalists.”

The public doesn’t have a lot of time for this sentiment. Maybe the public’s right. Dunno. Most hacks I know try their best. But then they’re also idiots, myself included. Dogs chasing cars, to quote a famous film villain. Or these days more likely to be sniffing each other’s arseholes on social media.

So: Yarl’s Wood. I’d heard plenty of murmurs from solicitors and campaigners before this weekend. But I hadn’t heard explicit details such as those laid out in the Observer’s front page story. To quote Nick Cohen’s accompanying comment piece:

According to Tanja's account, a male guard locks the door. He pulls out his earpiece, perhaps to make sure he is not disturbed, and after some initial touching, he pushes his penis in her face. He laughs when he ejaculates in her mouth – so confident is he that he can escape punishment.

I’d written about Yarl’s Wood many times before, but found it frustrating because I couldn’t really write about what I suspected to be a regular occurrence. I remember one former inmate talking to me on the phone from there last year: these words in her thick African accent - “They are BAD people. They are BAD people,” again and again. She’d come here from a war zone. What was going on? “I don’t like to say. They are BAD.”

Let’s quote Cohen again:

The corporate guards confine her and can punish her. One starts thrusting himself on her. What does she do? She could think that she has to go along with him or he'll put her on the next plane out. Or she could believe that if she does what she is told she will be in a relationship with an Englishman and that somehow this "affair" (if that is not too romantic a word) will allow her to stay in the country.

Bad people. But I couldn’t prove it, and there was plenty else to cover. I could have written a piece a week about the sort of people we send there. Only a couple of days ago I received an email about Evenia Mawongera, who has just been sent there pending deportation to Zimbabwe. She’s an outspoken critic of the Mugabe regime, and has been living in Leicester with her children and grandchildren for the past 10 years. 

On 22 August, she received a special commendation in the Good Neighbour Awards in recognition of her contribution to the community. She’s a member of the Zimbabwe Association Choir and is one of the people who performed for the Queen when she came to Leicester in June 2012 to mark the start of her Diamond Jubilee tour. She has no family in Zimbabwe. Her children and grandchildren, with whom she has been living for the past 10 years, are British citizens.

That’s the kind of person we keep sending to Yarl’s Wood.

And I know what Evenia faces. I’ve written about the history of the place. About a woman who was dragged out of her room naked in order to force her removal, and a resulting hunger strike among the detainees. About the woman suffering from kidney failure who was left sitting in her own piss in the van on the way to the centre. About the treatment of pregnant women in there. And so on.

So I’m glad the smoking gun eventually appeared - from a source, as Cohen points out, that very soon will cease to exist:

We would not have published a word about Yarl's Wood were it not for the heroic efforts of Harriet Wistrich, the best feminist lawyer I know. But she will not be able to carry on bringing cases like these to the public's attention for much longer.

The legal aid cuts are not directed against fat cat lawyers, who continue to make their fortunes in the City, but against solicitors such as her, who do well if they make £40,000 a year. More seriously, they are directed against their clients.

***

Some commenters on my previous pieces about Yarl’s Wood have complained about my apparent left wing bias. If only I took politics that seriously. I just tend to write about things that aren’t working. Like most writers who’ve spent enough time following our political elite, I believe that when you vote, you’re choosing between slightly different styles of management. And the most important distinction in the management isn’t between left or right - it’s between good and bad. And on many issues - perhaps most - you’ll get much the same kind of good and bad from all the parties.

Bad management doesn’t sound all that serious. But once the system malfunctions, the results can be despicable. Hillsborough, Mid Staffs, a vulnerable young woman in a detention centre giving blowjobs she doesn’t want to give. For evil to thrive, all that has to happen etc.

And we’ve dealt with immigration badly whoever’s in power. In part - and it’s the same story with crime - that’s because our lawmakers know that managing the public perception is far more important than whatever’s going on in reality.

We’re a funny lot when it comes to this issue. I guess as a nation we’re summed up by one encounter the TV chef Lorraine Pascale described on Twitter: “Landlord said to me all 'n words' should go home & were not welcome. He said I could stay though as his wife liked my cakes.”

As I once wrote here, in recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world. It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances.

But then T S Eliot was right about humankind not being able to stand too much reality. Send those scrounging foreign bastards/job thieves (delete as applicable; or maybe keep both) home, except for that nice old Indian couple who live up the road and that Spanish bloke in our local footy team. Damn the EU opening the floodgates, right up until we retire to the Algarve.

We’re a nation of tedious hypocrites. And that means our politicians have felt they have to be seen to be doing the right thing, even if they’re not. That’s how you end up with the crass hilariousness of the “racist van” patrolling the streets while the Border Agency staggers from one crisis to another, ruining lives in the process, until the coalition finally put it out of its misery.

At the time Theresa May said it was “secretive and defensive”. It was, but it was also unsure of itself, and like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to the giant corporations, put the dirty jobs at arm’s length - how bad could it be? They know what they’re doing, right? Institutional failure. It’s an object lesson in how evil happens.

Sorry for the indulgent trip down commentary lane: back to chasing cars now. If the weekend’s taught me anything, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

Police outside Yarl's Wood after a fire there in 2003. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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