Yarl's Wood: The whistleblower's story

Detainee's mental health was not treated seriously, claims whistleblower
Detainee's mental health was not treated seriously, claims whistleblower

By Noel Finn

This week's report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) into Yarl's Wood detention centre raised many issues about healthcare, systems failures, and a disbelief of detainees' stories which are only too familiar to me.

I worked at Yarl's Wood between 2012 to 2013 as a mental health nurse. Almost immediately after arriving I had concerns about the mental health of the residents and when I first raised these with management they appeared to acknowledge my worries. But things didn't improve.

I was the only dedicated mental health professional for over 400 potential patients. The other nurses (including other mental health nurses) were focused on physical care and had more of an administration role - checking residents were fit for deportation.


Many of the issues I noticed at Yarl's Wood were similar to those I had seen at other locked institutions, however I had never seen the same level of sexual undercurrent in the way officers interacted with residents as I did there.

On one occasion I was told a particularly vulnerable woman had been abused by a male member of the domestic staff. I was shocked not just by what was alleged but by the way the incident was discussed. I was told the patient "didn't stop him" and "they were just fiddling about." There was a clear suggestion she had been asking for it.

There were many other incidents which upset me. One night a woman who had been separated from her husband and child poured boiling water over herself. She was seen by a nurse at the time but her scalds were missed. After complaining of pain, officers gave her an appointment to attend healthcare but she missed her appointment because she couldn't physically get herself to the healthcare department.

Nobody thought to go and visit her when she didn't turn up. It was common not to reach out to patients and there was often a perception they were faking their symptoms. It was 16 hours after the incident occurred that officers finally escorted her to be seen by a medical professional. She had 80% burns across her back, neck and head. I demanded she go straight to A&E which she did but she never returned to Yarl's Wood - I don't know what happened to her.

Another time an officer called me to a patient's room because she had been sleeping for two days. The health care department were notified of this earlier but refused to visit her, telling the officer the woman should go to them and collect some paracetamol. When I entered the room, it was dark so I opened the curtains but she reacted negatively to the light. I checked her temperature and it was in the 40s. I suspected she had meningitis and she was rushed to A&E. I was very worried about her because she had been like that for two days before I was called. Again, she never returned to Yarl's Wood and I was never told what happened to her.

I compiled a report detailing the poor clinical practices but after I handed this in, my working relationship with the management at Yarl's Wood deteriorated massively. I felt I was being marginalised and bullied by senior staff. It would have been easier to keep quiet about what I was experiencing but I knew I couldn't do that and so I also raised a grievance about the bullying.

I was then suspended for "not following orders" and marched out of Yarl's Wood as lots of people looked on.

I called upon the help of a local Royal College of Nursing (RCN) representative for support. This was very much needed, as I was not in a good place at the time. It was eventually agreed that an internal investigation would be carried out into the concerns I had raised.

The investigation took place in 2013, just before the CQC and HMIP did their inspections in July. I received a letter from Serco in May, stating that only minor issues were found and could be easily resolved. I raised my concerns again with other authorities but was ignored.

Around this time it was reported by Channel 4 news that a woman had died in Yarl's Wood. I was very upset about this, not only because it was a life cut short, but because of where this woman died - her last breath was in detention. I know what this place is like and it is not for dying souls.

In 2014 I attended a home affairs select committee meeting about Yarl's Wood where I discovered that 10 members of staff had been dismissed by Serco for improper sexual contact with female detainees.

I was very angry and despite what I had experienced there myself I was shocked. But I was even more shocked when Theresa May agreed to a further eight year contract with Serco to run Yarl's Wood. 

The poor care at Yarl's Wood has been allowed to continue for far too long. The government must act now to tackle the issues raised by yesterday's report.

Noel Finn has been raising concerns about Yarl's Wood since 2012. He is a registered mental health nurse and health and social care teaching and training specialist

Update: A Serco spokesperson made the following statement:

“In 2013 Serco commissioned an independent clinical review of healthcare at Yarl’s Wood which confirmed that overall clinical care was satisfactory and NHS England was made aware of this. A Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection was also carried out in 2013 and the clinical care provided in Yarl’s Wood was judged to be compliant.”

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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