Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK: Punished for being a woman

Most women asylum seekers are fleeing so-called ‘non-political’ violence. Domestic violence, including within the extended family and community, ranks high. So does religious persecution of women and violence against lesbians. Women flee such violence because they know it’s wrong. When women asylum seekers are criminalized for seeking asylum, they are being punished for the knowledge they have as women. That’s a witch-hunt, and that’s what’s happening around the world today.

Last week, world leaders overwhelmingly endorsed the Every Newborn Action Plan, which calls for a global concerted effort to address infant mortality. This endorsement came on the heels of a major report, also released last week, which notes, “Every year, 2·9 million newborn babies die from largely preventable causes, and 2·6 million more are stillborn.” The report argues that every newborn counts, and, implicitly, that every mother of every newborn counts.

Would that it were true.

Around the world, women asylum seekers learn that not all maternities are equal. For example, in the United Kingdom, a recent study found asylum seekers receiving housing and subsistence support from the Home Office are regularly `dispersed’ to areas outside London. Pregnant women seeking asylum are often dispersed very late in their pregnancies or soon after delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has argued that pregnant women asylum seekers have special needs and particular vulnerabilities and need additional and particular support. The Home Office has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that finding. Women asylum seekers have reported the experience of `dispersal’ is distressing. `Dispersal’ interrupted established maternity care. It left women without social and family support. Because of the day-to-day realities of dispersal and of childbirth, many women asylum seekers gave birth alone. Midwives have reported that they do the best they can, but the `dispersal’ system disrupts everything.

A pregnant woman asylum seeker suffered flashbacks from sexual violence in her home country. She was `dispersed’ in late pregnancy. According to her midwife, “She needed some stability and care because she felt confident with the people who were looking after her and felt she could trust them. The best outcome would have been for her not to be transferred especially at that late stage.”

Since 2000, there has been a 9% increase in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom. One of the factors pumping the increase is “poorer access to healthcare, especially in some ethnic minority communities and among asylum seekers.”

The criminalization of asylum seekers is an assault on “mental, developmental and physical health,” and it is part and parcel of global mass incarceration. The criminalization of women asylum seekers inevitably means the pain, suffering and often death of women in childbirth as of their children. And who are these women? Women fleeing torture, seeking justice. Punished for fleeing, punished for remembering, punished for needing, punished for being a woman.

(Image Credit:

Harmondsworth, where a sense of humanity is lost

Asylum seekers in detention in the United Kingdom are on strike. They object to being treated as trash. The action began last Friday at Harmondsworth IRC, Immigration Removal Centre. Over 300 prisoners staged a sit-down protest and hunger strike. They are protesting the fast-track deportation program; the toxic health care system; the lack of access to legal representation, and more: “They’re not running detention. It’s like prison over here.”

The spark, this time, was a broken fax machine. The fax machine broke and was left broken for days. That meant prisoners could not file their appeals against deportation. Everything came to a standstill. For the prison, the fax was just another machine. For the prisoners, it meant life or death.

The urgency that turns a fax machine into a lifeline is produced by the fast-track system, which places practically every asylum seeker into a 14-day pressure cooker, during which they must do everything, from find an attorney to learn English to get comfortable speaking the unspeakable suffering and pain. Fourteen days. The detention center is not a detention center. It’s a prison. And the prison is not a prison. It’s a factory, and its business is removal.

On Tuesday, 20 prisoners in Brook House IRC staged an all-night protest in the exercise yard. They all refused to return to their cells. Over 50 prisoners at Colnbrook IRC have also engaged in a collective action. Yesterday, at Campsfield IRC, near Oxford, about 50 prisoners started a hunger strike. In each instance, the prison’s response has been to take the bulk of prisoners and dump them into solitary. That’s what you do with defective parts.

At 615 prisoners, Harmondsworth IRC is one of Europe’s largest detention centers. It has always been an abomination. The conditions have always been inhumane. Last year, a surprise visit by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found mismanagement and worse: “A number of security procedures lacked proportionality. Separation was being used excessively and was not in line with the Detention Centre Rules. Disturbingly, a lack of intelligent individual risk assessment had meant that most detainees were handcuffed on escort and on at least two occasions, elderly, vulnerable and incapacitated detainees, one of whom was terminally ill, were needlessly handcuffed in an excessive and unacceptable manner. These men were so ill that one died shortly after his handcuffs were removed and the other, an 84 year-old-man, died while still in restraints. These are shocking cases where a sense of humanity was lost.”

They should be shocking cases. They’re not. The State responded by yanking the prison contract from Geo and giving it to Mitie, which is to say no response at all. Harmondsworth has been a private operation since the 1970s, and it’s been bad for forty years. There is no shock at the end of four decades of abuse.

Ten years ago, doctors commented on the inappropriate shackling of sick and dying prisoners: “I had told the manager of the centre that in my professional opinion handcuffing was wholly inappropriate. We have a number of detainees brought here in cuffs. The question is: at what point does a doctor’s intervention cease to carry weight?” There is no room for shock. In 2007, the Inspectorate found Harmondsworth was more a high-security prison than an immigration removal center, complete with over use of solitary confinement and unrestricted antagonism from prison staff. In other words, they found in 2007 what they found last year.

In 2004, the atrocity of Harmondsworth’s mental health care and health care was so bad it inspired doctors to form Medical Justice. Today, despite advocacy and services, the vulnerability of asylum seekers means less than nothing. It provides one more reason to speed up the line and move them out more quickly.

In 2005, Amnesty wrote extensively about the horror of Harmondsworth. In 2006, the Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers commented: ‘This is undoubtedly the poorest report we have issued on an Immigration Removal Centre’. And what comes of these reports? Some other corporation gets the contract, and then, two years later, the Inspector is shocked.

In 2010, the Inspector found there was no information about legal rights and no up to date legal materials available for prisoners. The only legal help for prisoners was a consultation room open for only ten hours a week. In any week, only 20 clients could be seen. So, the room was booked two weeks in advance. But unrepresented prisoners in the fast track could not defer their asylum interviews for lack of legal counsel. So, by the time legal help was available, their claims had been refused and appeals dismissed. It’s a perfect amped up production line factory system.

Since 1989, 21 people have died in immigration removal centers in the United Kingdom. At the top of the list, with eight deaths, is the Harmondsworth IRC. Stop being `shocked’. Close Harmondsworth. End the brutality of fast-track asylum, which turns time into torture. One Campsfield prisoner explained, “We want our freedom. We want our life with dignity.” It’s time.


(Photo Credit:

Thais Moreira and Yashika Bageerathi: faces of democracies’ new witch-hunt


From the perspective of the State, young asylum seekers and young undocumented residents are the same. They are not supposed to be `here’. They are not supposed to speak up, and certainly not for themselves. Under no circumstances are they to succeed. Unkempt citizens of the unwashed criminal classes, they are to stay in the shadows … as shadows. This week, , in France, and Yashika Bageerathi, in England, are the faces of democracies’ new witch-hunt, and they reveal that a specter haunts Europe.

Thais Moreira is a 20-year-old student who came to France, from Brazil, in June 2009. She came with her mother. Since her arrival, Moreira has been a model student, resident, everything. She has fully integrated herself into her neighborhood, school, and new country. In mid February, she went to the local police station for `regularization.’ According to French law, if one has been in the country for five years and has completed three years of schooling, one can apply for residence papers. Some bureaucrat decided that Moreira had only arrived in France in 2010. And so, on March 7, she received the dreaded OQTF, or Obligation de quitter le territoire français. The letter gave her 30 days to leave the country.

Yashika Bageerathi is 19 years old. With her mother, younger sister and brother, a 16-year-old Bageerathi arrived in England in 2012, fleeing physical violence from a family member in Mauritius. Last week, Yashika Bageerathi was informed that, since she was now of majority, her case had been separated from that of the family, and her application for asylum was denied. She was to report to Yarl’s Wood. She was sent to the airport where, apparently, British Airways refused to give her passage. This seemed like a reprieve … until the State responded to the young woman’s appeal to not be separated from her family. The Home Department’s replied, “Fine, the whole family’s denied asylum, and you’re all going back to Mauritius.” That’s where the situation sits now.

In both Thais Moreira’s and Yashika Bageerathi’s cases, students and staff mobilized and organized. They have protested, marched, organized Twitter campaigns (check out #FightforYashika), organized petitions, and more. They have raised a mighty ruckus. And they are asking questions, especially about “the yawning gap between official rhetoric against immigrants “who do not fit” and the violent reality of expulsion and deportation.”

From the Dreamers in the United States to Thais Moreira in France to Yashika Bageerathi (and before her, Lorin Sulaiman) in England, young people, students all, are protesting the witch-hunt that is immigration policy. And it’s not just those students who are asylum seekers or undocumented residents. It’s their friends as well, the students they study, play, and live with. They confront State viciousness with hope and creativity. They oppose State callousness with love. Who’s the teacher and who’s the student now? Stop the democracies’ witch-hunt. Empty the immigration prisons. Stop the deportations … now!


(Photo Credit:

War against the refugees, madness, madness, war

The news today presents the two faces of a spinning coin. On one side, the direct war against asylum seekers. On the other side, the structural war against asylum seekers. Spin the coin, and the two become one.

On a morning talk show today, Australia’s Prime Minister was asked about the varieties of silence and secrecy that mark the State’s campaign against boat people reaching Australia. Boats have been secretly towed to Indonesia, according to some reports. Reporters are routinely denied access to immigration prisons. The Prime Minister’s response is telling: “The public want the boats stopped and that’s really what they want – that’s really my determination. If stopping the boats means being criticised because I’m not giving information that would be of use to people smugglers, so be it. We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. If we were at war we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

When it comes to the immigration centers, the Prime Minister continued his line of reasoning: “I am confident that we are running these centres competently and humanely … Let’s remember that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat. They have done something that they must have known was wrong. We don’t apologise for the fact that they are not five star or even three star hotels. Nevertheless, we are confident that we are well and truly discharging our humanitarian obligations. People are housed, they’re clothed, they’re fed, they’re given medical attention, they’re kept as safe as we can make it for them, but we want them to go back to the country from which they came. That’s what we want.”

The public wants, we want, war. Under the new campaign, Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia militarized its refugee practices, policies and policing agencies. In permanent of border protection, all’s fair, and no need to discuss justice. It’s about winning the fierce contest. The Prime Minister bristles with military `confidence’.

On the other side of the world, the British government today received a report from its National Audit Office. The report, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, suggests, in detail, that the `confidence’ placed in private corporations that house asylum seekers was, at best, misplaced.

COMPASS stands for Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support. As always, this outsourcing was meant to save the government money. In March 2012, the government contracted three companies: G4S, Serco and Clearel. From the beginning, Clearel seemed to meet its contractual obligations, and complaints from residents were far and few between. G4S and Serco, on the other hand, started poorly and continued in that vein. This is not surprising, given that neither Serco nor G4S had any experience in housing asylum seekers. They knew how to detain them, how to put them in cages and throw away the keys, as the Yarl’s Wood experiences have shown. But they had never actually housed asylum seekers in communities. So … how did they get the contracts?


The two largest outsourcing and private security corporations in the world exuded confidence. The State felt confident as well. And now, two years later, they’re failing, and the government wants to recover £7m, and that’s just for starters.

Sometimes the housing was substandard, other times the processes were inhumane. With little to no prior warning and absolutely no consultation, women and children, in particular, found themselves shunted from one side of the country to another. Women asylum seekers also reported that staff would carry out unannounced property visits. Sometimes staff would enter into the house or apartment without even knocking. Some women asylum seekers reported these intrusions “made them feel unsafe.” The majority of women asylum seekers in England, as everywhere, are fleeing sexual violence, more often than not from partners or community members, and are single. None of that mattered to the staff; they had their jobs to do.

When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, only confidence counts. The State has confidence in itself and in its contracted confreres. In the Australian and the British cases, this confidence is intensified by the racial/ethnic dynamic of White majority governments declaring war on individuals and populations, and in particular women and children, of color.

Where once the situation was “war amongs’ the rebels, madness, madness, war”, today the song sung with confidence is “war against the refugees, madness, madness, war.”


(Photo Credit: AAP/Scott Fisher)

What happens in immigration detention stays in immigration detention

This is a story of whistleblowers in the land where there are no whistles and ears are forbidden. That land is called “immigration detention”. In different places, it goes by different names. Yarl’s Wood in England. Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros, or CIE, in Spain. The names change, but the structures and situations are the same. “Immigration detention” is a country, and it’s global.

In September, there was yet another story about systematic sexual predation at Yarl’s Wood. This time it was Tanja’s story, an account that only made it to the public because of the tenacity, perseverance and creativity of Tanja, who just kept on pushing. Yarl’s Wood is a designed community in which staff preys upon the most vulnerable, typically young women fleeing sexual violence. Remember, the Yarl’s Wood prison population is almost 90% women, while men make up almost half the staff. The police yet again said they would conduct an investigation. The real story here is the story of the story, the fact that Tanja could get the story out at all. And that story continues.

Since Tanja’s story broke, all hell has broken loose, and by hell is meant silence. First it was Sirah Jeng, a 59-year-old Gambian, who said she could corroborate Tanja’s story. Her reward? In November she was informed, with barely any notice, that she should get ready for imminent deportation … hours before her scheduled appointment with investigating police. That was November.

This month, Afolashade Lamidi, 40-year-old Nigerian, also confirmed parts of Tanja’s accounts, and then some. And she received the same treatment as Sirah Jeng. She was promised the opportunity of forced return to Nigeria.

This is in so many ways a common story. In Spain this month, Aramis Manukyan, known by his friends and now the world as Alik, was “found dead in his cell.” Alik was a 42-year-old Armenian, a father of a 7-year-old daughter. Found dead in his cell was immediately translated into suicide, despite various testimonies to the contrary. Prisoners reported from different floors that they could her Alik’s cries, but no matter. He committed suicide.

After much pressure from the usual suspects like SOS Racismo, Cerramos los CIE (Close the CIE) and Migra Studium, the police, yet again, say they would conduct an investigation. And that’s when the two key witnesses were deported.

For every Tanja and every Alik there are tens, hundreds, thousands of neighbors and friends, prisoners all. There are witnesses in prison, and they are not the kings or queens in the land of the blind. They are the witnesses in the land of the blinded. They are the whistleblowers in the land where whistles are prohibited and hearing is a crime. Remember, what happens in immigration detention stays, or dies, in immigration detention.


(Photo Credit: Guy Corbishley / Demotix / Corbis / The Guardian)

We all fail Nadine Wright

HMP Peterborough is touted as a model private prison. It’s about five years old, run by Sodexo Justice Services. It houses, or contains, both men and women. The women are mostly remand prisoners, awaiting trial. Everyone is supposed to be short-term, low level, and generally available to `rehabilitation.’ As far as accounting goes, Peterborough brought to the United Kingdom, and in large degree to the world, “payment by results.” This means, the prison corporation is paid based on prisoner re-entry results. Some think Petersborough might be the way forward, the path out of the neoliberal prison forest. It’s not.

Keep the advertised fabulousness of Peterborough in mind as you ponder the story of Nadine Wright.

Nadine Wright is a woman living with disabilities and crises. Mental health illnesses. Heroin addiction. Her mother died in September, and there was no one to assist Nadine Wright. Meanwhile, the State repeatedly fails to make her benefits available to her. Wright did not receive her benefits in November. And so she was barely living, desperately poor, somewhere below hand-to-mouth.

So, what’s a desperately poor woman to do? Nadine Wright stole some food. She was caught and arrested. She was sent to Peterborough. Nadine Wright was pregnant when she was arrested. While in her cell, she went into labor and suffered a miscarriage. A nurse was in attendance.

According to Nadine Wright’s attorney, the nurse then left the cell. She left the fetus in the cell. No one came to clean up the cell, and so Nadine Wright was left to clean up her own blood … by herself: “There was blood everywhere and she was made to clean it up. The baby was not removed from the cell. It was quite appalling. It was very traumatic. She only received health care three days later, after the governor intervened.”

Everyone failed Nadine Wright. Her probation officers and the entire probation system. The health providers. The prison staff. Sodexo. The State. Culture. A world in which prison is the answer to mental illness, to disability, to poverty, to trauma, to personal chaos and crisis, to women acting out, to pretty much everything. We all collude in that world. We all failed Nadine Wright, and we all continue to do so.


(Photo Credit: AFP / Getty / Independent)

Shackling the birthing, dead and dying: All in a day’s work

Juana Villegas

Juana Villegas

Which is worse, the use of chains and shackles to confine the most vulnerable in times of crisis or the fact that the usage has become routine? Ask pregnant women prisoners across the United States. Ask terminally ill, hospitalized, disabled and even dead prisoners in the United Kingdom.

Last month the Nevada Prison Board voted to stop shackling and otherwise `restraining’ women prisoners in labor, in delivery, and in post-delivery recuperation. This decision resulted from a lawsuit brought by Valorie Nabors, with the ACLU. Nabors had been an inmate at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center. She went into labor and was placed in leg shackles in the ambulance. Ten minutes after giving birth to a daughter, Nabors was again placed in shackles. Valorie Nabors and her attorneys argued, apparently convincingly, that she suffered injury when doing doctor prescribed rehabilitative exercises while shackled.

Juana Villegas has lived a related story. In 2008, nine months pregnant, Mexican, undocumented, Villegas was picked up in a traffic stop in suburban Nashville. Under `an arrangement’ between Davidson County and Federal authorities, Villegas was detained for six days. Villegas went into labor, was taken to the hospital, where she was chained to a bed, during labor and during recovery. She has since sued for damages and recently won, not only financial compensation but also, possibly, a resident visa.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, prisoners literally at death’s door, prisoners living with paralyzing and debilitating disabilities, are shackled, not only when taken to hospital but also during their stay. Michael Tyrrell, dying from cancer and too weak to move; Kyal Gaffney, diagnosed with leukemia, unconscious due to a brain hemorrhage; Daniel Roque Hall, 30, in intensive care, wasting away, and barely able to use arms or legs: these are typical of the `security risks’ that required not only chains and shackles but three prison guards … each.

And then there’s `Lucy’. In 2007, Lucy was transported to hospital for a recurring and serious gynecological problem. Although Lucy had no history of violence and had actually just returned from a daylong release on license, she was handcuffed to a male and a female officer en route to the hospital and while at the hospital. During the interview with the doctor, Lucy was handcuffed to both officers. When the doctor said he would be doing an internal examination, the male prison guard said he would have to remain in the examination room. At last, the doctor convinced the male officer to handcuff Lucy to the examining table and wait outside. Throughout the entire internal examination, the female officer remained handcuffed to Lucy.

That the global prison has produced a boom niche market in chains and shackles is horrible enough. Worse is that the shackling has become routine. Prison guards routinely shackle women in childbirth and women and men on deathbeds, and then go home to their families and communities. Medical professionals routinely tend to shackled women in childbirth and shackled women and men on their deathbeds, and then go home to their families and communities. It’s all in a day’s work.


(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Stop sending children to prison!


In 2003, children started disappearing in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. By 2009, over 5000 had vanished, or more precisely had been disappeared. They were sold into juvenile prison system in what some call a kids-for-cash scam. In 2011, Judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan pled guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud.

Over a period of five or six years, two private juvenile prisons, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, paid the judges to send over 5000 children to jail. Many were first time offenders. Some, like Edward Kenzakoski, committed suicide. Others, like Jamie Quinn, walked away. But all suffered harm. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided almost all the juvenile convictions from 2003 on.

Recently, the two private detention companies settled a kids-for-cash civil suit, agreeing to pay $2.5 million in compensation. It’s estimated that the companies had paid the two judges $2.6 million, and so there’s a kind of tragic elegance to the number, except that there is nothing elegant in this story.

In 2011, the kids-for-cash story seemed like a horror, a nightmare. Now we know it’s the tip of a global iceberg. Across the United States, and beyond, nation-States have decided that the best place for children is prison. Often, that prison is one for adults.

For example, the City of New York Board of Corrections just released a report, entitled “Three Adolescents with Mental Illness in Punitive Segregation at Rikers Island.” The report follows three boys, Jimmy, Matthew and Carlos: “This report describes the life and jail experience of three mentally ill adolescents who were each sentenced to more than 200 days in punitive segregation at Rikers Island. Mentally ill adolescents in punitive segregation merit special attention because they are the most vulnerable prisoners in custody. New York State is one of only two states in the country where all 16‐ and 17‐ year‐olds are under the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system regardless of the offense. In New York City jails, all 16‐, 17‐, and 18‐year‐olds are deemed “adolescents” and are housed separately from adults. Adolescents make up approximately 5% of the average daily population of prisoners at Rikers Island. A recent one‐day snapshot of the jail population showed that almost 27% of the 586 adolescents at Rikers Island were in punitive segregation, and roughly 71% of those in punitive segregation were diagnosed as mentally ill.”

What was their crime? They were children living with mental illnesses. What was their treatment? 200 days in `the box’.

In Texas this week, reports emerged of staff violence against inmates in the Phoenix Program, which was designed to reduce the violence in juvenile facilities. The reports suggest that the violence is both widespread and extreme. How does the State respond? A few staff members are fired, a few `disciplined’, and then back to business as usual.

The private juvenile prison industry and the public juvenile prison industry expand, arm in arm in arm in arm. The State absolves itself of oversight, and children are maimed and broken, in so many ways. Across the country, the rate of girls being incarcerated rises precipitously, and little or nothing is done to attend to the particularities of girls behind bars.

This situation is spreading, and not only across the United States. In certain neighborhoods and communities, particularly communities of color, in the United Kingdom, a night, or more, in detention is a default response to pretty much any whiff of `a problem.’ According to a recent report: “Fifteen per cent of the total number of overnight detentions in 2010 and 2011 were of girls. This is a surprisingly high percentage as girls generally represent less than 5 per cent of criminal sentences.”

Stop sending children to prison. Stop sending children to `overnight detention.’ Stop sending children into solitary confinement. Stop the torture of children.


(Image Credit: Prison Culture)

At HMP Bronzefield, we were dismayed

Welcome to HMP Bronzefield, a “Private Finance Initiative”, or PFI, prison for women in southeast England. If you are a `women with complex needs’, a women who is both `vulnerable and violent’, you can expect to spend your time, years and years of it, in isolation, in a squalid cell.

That is the finding of an unannounced visit by Nick Harwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. In April he visited Bronzefield, and here’s part of his report: “HMP Bronzefield is a closed women’s local prison run by Sodexo Justice Services that at the time of this inspection held 446 women on remand or serving sentences ranging from a few weeks to life … At our last inspection in 2010 we reported:

“The prison held a small number of ‘restricted status’ women, some of whom had severe personality disorders. Their needs could simply not be met by the prison. One woman, who had exhibited unpredictable and violent behaviour, had effectively been held in the segregation unit for three years with very little human contact or activity to occupy her. The conditions in which she was held seemed likely to lead to further psychological deterioration and were completely unacceptable. There was little evidence that senior staff in the Prison Service had oversight of women segregated for long periods to ensure their conditions were humane. Bronzefield is not an appropriate place for women with these needs and there was a lack of a national strategy to manage women with such complex demands.

“We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it. Although more activities had been organised for her and better multi-disciplinary support was available, she still had too little to occupy her. Her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – and we use these words advisedly. The treatment and conditions of other women held for long periods in segregation was little better. Much of this was outside the prison’s direct control and required a national strategy for meeting the needs of these very complex women – as exists in the male estate. However, Bronzefield itself needed to do more to ameliorate the worst effects of this national failure.”

When Bronzefield opened in 2004, it was the first PFI prison for women in the United Kingdom. In their nine years of operation, they have not managed, or refused, to take into account `women with complex needs.’

Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, wondered, “Why in this day and age are women with such complex needs transported like cattle and dumped in prison, where one of the most damaged women is left to rot in some form of solitary confinement for five years?”

Frances Cook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was a bit more direct: “This shocking case of treatment, which appears to amount to torture, in an English prison should shame ministers who tolerate the over-use of custody for women and consequent poor treatment.”

It should should … but it didn’t. They loudly proclaim their opposition to violence in Syria but for `women with complex needs’ in their own backyards? Not so much.

Jan Sambrook, the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board at Bronzefield, wrote, today, “We are … very concerned about the humane and fair treatment of a small number of such women. The discussion so far has been about one woman. This is not an isolated case … I, previous chairs, and members of the IMB have raised our concerns repeatedly about the women held long-term in the segregation unit. This is in direct contravention of National Offender Management Service (Noms) guidance, falls well below what is fair, decent and humane, and discriminates against female prisoners, as the special accommodation available to men is not provided for women … I’d like to emphasise that the concern is not just about the one woman being talked about today, but the wider issue of the holding of the small number of women who are potentially very violent, difficult and volatile but also vulnerable. Presently there are no dedicated facilities for the holding of these women such as those available in the male prison estate, meaning that they get held in what we consider unsuitable conditions, including being isolated for far too long. This is unfair and discriminatory.”

What do we know about women’s prisons? They have a higher ratio of people living with mental health illnesses and a higher ratio of people who have been sexually and otherwise abused. What else do we know about women’s prisons? If you’re a woman prisoner in the United Kingdom and you’ve got any problems, unlike in the male prison system, there’s nowhere to go but in a hole … for a long time.

Call it torture. Call it systematic as well. And please refrain from expressions of shock. This is not an isolated case; this is not about one woman or one prison; and none of this is new.



(Photo Credit: Martin Argles / The Guardian)

Roseline Akhalu and the atrocious barbarism of the Home Office

Roseline Akhalu on her way to an immigration tribunal

Despite the greatest efforts of the United Kingdom Home Office, it appears that Roseline Akhalu will be allowed to live. Last week, judges rejected `an appeal’ by the Home Office to deport Roseline Akhalu. Akhalu committed no crime, other than that of being ill and of being Nigerian. If she were to return to Nigeria, it is certain that she would die. No one disputes this. And yet … the Home Office has spent years and untold resources trying to deport her. Why?

Furthermore, why do they call it the Home Office, when that agency dedicates its resources to expelling, incarcerating, and generally despising the precisely those who need help? What kind of home is that, anyway?

In 2004, Roseline Akhalu was one of 23 people to win a Ford Foundation scholarship to study in England. That would be enough to celebrate in itself, but Akhalu’s story is one of extraordinary pain and perseverance. Five years earlier, she and her husband were working in Benin City, in Nigeria. Her husband was a nurse, and Roseline Akhalu worked for the local government. They didn’t earn much but they got by. Until March 1999, when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The couple was told that they must go to South Africa, or India, for care, but the costs of such a venture were prohibitive. And so … Roseline Akhalu watched her husband die because there was no money.

Now a widow, and a widow without a child, Akhalu confronted a hostile future. After her in-laws took pretty much everything, Roseline Akhalu set about the work of making a life for herself. She worked, she studied, she applied for a masters’ scholarship, and she succeeded.

Akhalu went to Leeds University, to study Development Studies. She joined a local church; she tended her gardens, saving tomatoes that were otherwise destined to die; she worked with young girls in the area. She planned to return to Nigeria and establish an ngo to work with young girls. It was all planned.

Until she was diagnosed with kidney failure. That was 2004, a few months after arriving. In 2005, Akhalu was put on regular dialysis. In 2009, she had a successful kidney transplant, but the transplant meant that for the rest of her life Roseline Akhalu would need hospital check-ups and immunosuppressant drugs. In Nigeria, those drugs would be impossibly costly.

Her attorney informed the government of her change in status, that due to unforeseen circumstances Roseline Akhalu, who had never planned on staying in the United Kingdom, now found that, in order to live, she had to stay.

And so began Roseline Akhalu’s journey into the uncanny unheimlich of the Home Office, where home means prison or exile, and nothing says “compassion” like humiliation and degradation and persecution.

Once a month, Akhalu showed up, in Leeds, at the United Kingdom Border Agency Reporting Office. Then, in March of 2012, without explanation, she was detained and immediately packed off, by Reliance `escorts’, to the notorious Yarl’s Wood, where she was treated like everyone’s treated at Yarl’s Wood, and especially women … disgustingly.

So far this is business as usual. Here’s where it gets interesting. In May, Akhalu was released from detention. In September, the Home Office refused her appeal. In November, a judge overturned the Home Office decision. The judge declared that, since Akhalu had established a private life of value to her, to members of the Church, and to a wider community, removing her would violate her right to a private and family life protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge noted that Akhalu had done absolutely nothing illegal. She had come to the United Kingdom legally and was diagnosed while legally in the country. Most chillingly, perhaps, the judge agreed that to send Roseline Akhalu back to Nigeria was a swift death sentence. Given the health care system and costs in Nigeria, she would be dead within four weeks. Nigerian and English doctors agreed.

On December 14, the Home Office appealed the decision. That’s right. They’re pursuing a case against Roseline Akhalu, despite all the evidence and mounting pressure from all sides. Why? Because that’s what the Home Office does. Want an example? In 2008, Ama Sumani, 43-year old Ghanaian woman, was lying in hospital in Cardiff, in Wales, receiving kidney dialysis for malignant myeloma. That was until the good old boys showed up and hauled her out and then shipped her off to Ghana, where she died soon after. The Lancet put it neatly: “The UK has committed an atrocious barbarism.” That was January 19, 2008. Five years later and more … the atrocity continues.

(This originally appeared, in January 2013, in a different version, at Africa Is a Country. Thanks as ever for the collaboration and support.)


(Photo Credit: