The road to Britain's most infamous refugee detention centre cuts through the picturesque village of Milton Ernest, outside Bedford, before turning off into an abandoned industrial park where the vast hulks of former factories lie eerily empty. A few twists and turns later, we come upon a collection of drab low-rise blocks looking more like a council leisure centre than a prison – but for the hundreds of women inside, Yarl's Wood is without doubt the latter.
In the waiting room, anxious-looking relatives wait for visiting hours to begin, ignoring the chattering of BBC News, the tatty magazines and a lonely hardback biography of Sharon Osbourne. At 2pm, they rise, depositing phones and wallets in lockers and passing through two cell-like steel doors and a thorough security check into a sprawling and sparse lounge. The visitors know the drill, they have been here before.
Lara walks slowly into the room looking tired. A deportation flight is scheduled for tonight, 26 January, she tells IBTimes UK, and the 350 women currently incarcerated at Yarl's Wood still have no idea which of them will be on it. Lara, 37, is pretty sure she is safe as her asylum claim is still being processed, but since arriving in September 2015, two lots of women have been deported. She can't help but fear that next time she will be on the flight.
Nigerian in origin, Lara recently saw one of her friends at the centre sent back to the country after 12 years in the UK, and another after 21 years. She said that often inmates are told they have appointments at the medical centre or with their lawyers in order to get them out of their room, and then they are taken to the airport. Those who refuse are forcibly removed and hustled onto charter flights. Few, she said, are heard from again.
"There is another flight today and I don't even want to leave my room. I know the women won't want to go and [the guards] will have to carry them. They have to chain them. When they come in, they say: 'Do you want us to take you with force?' and people beg them not to take them," she said.
It is no overstatement to describe Yarl's Wood as infamous. In 2014 Serco, the private contractor that operates the centre, was forced to sack 10 members of staff after allegations of sexual misconduct with female inmates, sparked by an article in the Observer. In 2015, a report by the UK prison watchdog said the centre was "a place of national concern", with women claiming that conditions were dire and they felt unsafe.
As a result, Serco commissioned an independent inquiry into conditions. Released on January 15, 2016, the report criticised some aspects of staffing, training and a shortage of female officers but did not find an "endemic culture of abuse". Serco responded by promising new training, better food and body cameras for all front-line staff to prevent abuse.
In a statement to IBTimes UK, Serco confirmed that six members of staff have been disciplined for alleged verbal or physical abuse of detainees over the past 12 months, but disputed claims by inmates such as Lara that women are routinely handcuffed or forcibly removed from their rooms. Only two detainees have been handcuffed over the past 12 months, the spokesman said, and only when they became a danger to themselves or others.
He referred questions about deportation flights and how women are informed they are on them to the Home Office and Tascor, the company responsible for the transit of deportees once they leave Yarl's Wood. The Home Office said the use of restraints on asylum seekers had "reduced markedly" and Tascor insisted it "carries out risk assessments to determine whether the restraints are required".
The Home Office did not comment on how women are notified of their deportation or whether a flight did indeed leave on 26 January. But a Glasgow-based refugee charity, the Unity Centre, confirmed that a flight did leave the UK that day and that at least one woman from Yarl's Wood was on it. The charity said that the flight took refugees from Stansted Airport to Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Three of the four staff members that IBTimes UK encountered during our undercover visit to the centre in January 2016 were women, but a report by HM Prisons Inspectorate in August 2015 found "too many male staff" and said that "men had to be used inappropriately – in health-care and supervision roles". Serco had committed to increasing female staff members to 60% by the end of 2015 and confirmed that the figure currently stands at 57%.
Critics including London-based outreach charity Women for Refugee Women argue that this is all the more important given that many of the women in the centre – a majority of whom are from Africa, mostly Nigeria – are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Lara doesn't specify her own reasons for leaving Nigeria, but says that if she returned she is sure her estranged husband would have her killed: "They would kill. They would find me and kill me," she says, stony-faced.
But male or female, she says that Serco guards are a mixed bag. "Some of the officers are human enough [but] some of them shout that they will take you back to Nigeria – I don't understand why they would say this," she said.
Lara says even inmates who are not scheduled for deportation live in fear of being listed in the "orange book", where infractions ranging from refusing to eat are listed alongside rudeness to staff. Being listed in the book also means you are forbidden from using the shop at the detention centre, where inmates can buy their own food.
Serco confirmed their ACDT (Assessment Care in Detention and Teamwork) file is indeed orange, but said inmates were listed in it only if they were a danger to themselves or others. The only restrictions on what they could buy, the spokesman said, were for glass products that could be broken and used to self-harm.
Charlotte, another inmate at Yarl's Wood, was brought to the UK by Ghanaian people traffickers from whom she later escaped. But a chance encounter with a member of the gang while living in Essex with a friend landed her a 16-month stretch in prison. When she was released, she was taken to Yarl's Wood, where she has been for almost a year, supported by Women for Refugee Women.
As such, she is one of its longest-serving inmates and well placed to comment on Serco's claims that conditions are improving after the regular investigations, reports and scandals of the last two years. Like Lara, Charlotte talks about the flight scheduled for the day we meet and the impact it will have on the other women at the centre.
"It is getting worse and worse – the food and the way they are forcing people. Today there is a flight and I know that they will force people to go. We cannot do anything to stop it. They are our friends and some are asylum seekers – it is very sad," she says.
"One of these days they will take me by force [...]. When they call you for a legal appointment, you panic. When you get a text message, you panic. This place is hard, harder than prison."
Like many of the women in the centre, Charlotte complains about the food, claiming that while they used to be given a hot lunch they are now given sandwiches: "I can't eat bread [but] they say they are cutting costs."
A Serco spokesman said that this claim was untrue and that hot food was served at lunch: "Our menu has been recently reviewed and changed to provide a more nutritious and balanced diet for detainees. Meals are made from fresh produce and are culturally diverse and we are aiming to provide a healthy diet," he said.
As for Lara, she last saw her children in 2005 and becomes visibly emotional when asked about them: "I wonder where they might be, whether they are still alive. I wonder where they are now," she says, staring into the distance. She pauses: "I don't talk about my children." She, like many detainees and former detainees, is fatalistic about her future both in Yarl's Wood and in the UK.
"Do people want me to die here? If I died here then you would give me leave to remain – when you bury me," she said.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Yarl's Wood detention centre published by IBTimes UK on 8 February. Read Part Two here.