Today HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has published its first inspection report into Derwentside detention centre, in County Durham. Derwentside opened in December 2021, following the ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood as a detention centre for men, and is now the main detention centre for women in the UK,

We are very concerned by HMIP’s findings:

  • Nearly one in five of the women HMIP spoke to said they had felt suicidal at some point while detained in Derwentside, and over two-thirds said they had felt depressed. Yet HMIP found that those at risk of self-harm or suicide did not receive consistent and well-organised care’.
  • Worryingly, HMIP also highlights that inspectors saw a male member of staff carrying out ‘constant supervision’ of a woman whose triggers for self-harm included the presence of men. Constant supervision (or suicide watch) involves officers watching women at all times, including in intimate situations – for instance, when they are showering, getting dressed or on the toilet.
  • The use of male officers in constant supervision was routine in Yarl’s Wood until we revealed what had been going on in our 2015 report I Am Human. Following this, the Home Office introduced guidance explicitly prohibiting this practice – but it is now happening in Derwentside.
  • We raised our concern that male officers were being used for constant supervision in evidence we submitted in September to Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, who visited Derwentside yesterday. We are very concerned now to have had our worries confirmed.
  • HMIP’s report also highlights a very concerning ‘use of force’ incident, during which a 38-year-old woman was restrained ‘using unapproved and risky techniques, particularly around the head and neck area’. During this incident HMIP also highlight that ‘an officer and a senior manager were overheard to make derogatory remarks about the detainee’. This distressing incident was witnessed by other women in Derwentside.
  • Additionally, HMIP highlight that Derwentside’s remote location means that very few women had received face-to-face legal visits from solicitors. We recently brought a legal challenge against the Home Office, focused on the lack of in-person legal advice for women at Derwentside.

At the time of the inspection there were 25 women detained in Derwentside, which has capacity to detain 84 women at any one time. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons: ‘There is … a real risk that, as the number of women held there rises, the fragilities that our inspection identified could lead to real harm.’

The low number of women in Derwentside also raises real questions about why it opened in the first place. Between 2019-21, the Home Office ran an ‘alternative to detention’ project for women seeking asylum, but abandoned it without any explanation. Women’s cases can be resolved more humanely, and at far less cost, in the community.

Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Manager at Women for Refugee Women, said:

The findings in this inspection report are the same concerns we have seen in Yarl’s Wood time and time again, which we have previously raised with the Home Office. These harms and distress caused to women are repetitions of the same lack of care, unsafe conditions and harmful practices we have seen before.

In fact, the Home Office introduced guidance explicitly prohibiting the use of male officers for constant supervision of women following our 2015 report on Yarl’s Wood – yet this is now happening in Derwentside.

At the time of HMIP’s inspection there were 25 women in Derwentside, and Home Office statistics show that the number of women detained there has remained well below capacity. So the decision to open this detention centre remains completely inexplicable.

Detention destroys women’s lives. Women seeking safety should be with their loved ones in our communities. We urge the Government to shut Derwentside down immediately.