Yarl’s Wood echos H-Block and Attica

Yarl’s Wood echos H-Block and Attica

[Phil Miller, Stop Deportations Blog, 10th September 2012]

Here is a leaked doucment from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC).
It shows how Serco, the private contractor, pay detainees £1 per hour for cleaning work.

Several women detained at Yarl’s Wood IRC have now organised themselves into a “Movement for Justice Group” and issued a significant statement, which includes 8 demands.

Yarl’s Wood, September 2012:

“Led by a group of lesbian women in detention, the Yarls Wood Movement for Justice group has now grown to include many more women both lesbian and straight; all are determined to fight for their freedom and the freedom of all women in detention; an end to the racist and abusive system of detaining people who have committed no crime other than seek a life free from torture, persecution, abuse and poverty and the freedom to study, live, work and be exactly who they are.

Together the Yarls Wood Movement for Justice Group has voted on a set of demands for immediate improvement in the conditions of detention (cleaning work that only pays 50p an hour, blocks on the internet and lack of printing facilities) and the overarching goal of freedom for all and an end to detention.

1. Respect for our human rights – Release us now
2. No more Fast Track
3. Unblock the internet & allow internet access to our petition link and printing of petition materials
4. Pay us at least the minimum wage for the work we do in detention
5. No more copy & paste of case decisions – we need fair trial
6. No more charter flights
7. End deportation – End detention
8. We need freedom – legal status for us all in the UK

The entire immigration system is racist, homophobic, sexist and rotten to the core. The collective organisation of detainees in detention combined with a militant and determined fight in all of our communities across the UK can be the death knell of this poisonous system that has robbed from us so many of our sisters, brothers, neigbour’s, cousins, fathers, mothers, workmates and friends. This pernicious effect has been highlighted dramatically with the threatened deportation of almost 3000 students from London Met University – the time to fight is now; student and non student, detained and not detained, citizen and non-citizen, International student and UK student – we must stand together for a new Britain, a better Britain: diverse, multiracial, integrated and equal”.

Movement for Justice (MFJ) already have groups in universities and colleges. Their members gathered outside the Home Office last week to protest the situation facing international students at London Metropolitan University.  MFJ say the group in Yarl’s Wood is the first one they have successfully organised inside an Immigration Removal Centre. Although this is not the first time that immigration detainees have issued demands, previous attempts have been more isolated from support groups beyond the wire and tended to focus only on the issue of asylum.

Therefore this is a tentative step forward for MFJ, especially considering the serious risk of repression for detainees who are politically active. The UK Border Agency tend to transfer ‘troublemakers’ to other detention centres or prisons to break up protests, if they are unable to just deport those involved. The network of MFJ groups outside of detention has most likely provided the women inside Yarl’s Wood with the confidence to speak out even when detained. MFJ are also significant because they consciously link the struggle of asylum-seekers with a wider political program.

“Uniting the new immigrant and asylum seekers communities, most of whom are young, with the best and most progressive elements of Britain’s established black, Asian, Irish and Muslim communities and white working class, middle class and poor, in a single movement bold enough to fight for equal rights and opportunities for everyone; we can create a new Britain.”

The Blanket Men in H-Block

The women’s 8 demands show the methods used by the British State to criminalise people who seek political asylum: indefinite detention, a fast-tracked legal process and collective expulsions by charter flight to name just a few. The Establishment’s strategy is to associate asylum-seekers with criminality, in order to delegitimise their lawful demands for international protection as set out in the Geneva Convention of 1967.

Criminalisation has been used before by the British Establishment to repress dissidents. Their policy of criminalisation in the North of Ireland from 1976 denied Prisoner of War status to Irish Republicans detained during the Troubles. These prisoners sought to restore their political status as set out in the Geneva Convention of 1929 by making 5 simple demands:

  1. The right not to wear a prison uniform;
  2. The right not to do prison work;
  3. The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
  4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
  5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

These prisoners spent five years with just a blanket wrapped around their naked bodies rather than be clothed like a convicted criminal. By 1981 the ‘blanket men’ had become an iconic symbol of resistance to British rule and a catalyst for the Irish Republican movement.

In the same year that Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (aka. “the H-Blocks”) was built in the North of Ireland in anticipation of Criminalisation, the British Government passed the Immigration Act 1971. This legislation began the administrative detention of people denied entry to the UK. Four decades on, there are now 15 immigration removal sites which can hold more than 3000 detainees. These immigration detention facilities have been almost exclusively built in England and are run by private companies like G4S. Critics, like Clare Sambrook and Corporate Watch, argue this profit motive is what has fueled the growth of Immigration Removal Centres.

Attica Prison Uprising, 1971

The prison-industrial complex was a recognised phenomena even in 1971. Black prisoners in New York warned in their 1971 Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands that “their labour power is being exploited in order for the state to increase its economic power and to continue to expand its correctional industries (which are million-dollar complexes)”. Faduma Hassan comments that:

“One of the most interesting aspects of the manifesto for today is the demands regarding the conditions of the prisoners as workers…the eleventh demand clearly points out the need for the institutions that will use the labour of the prisoners to ‘be made to conform with the state and federal minimum wage laws’. Of course, prison labour today, whether in the US or the UK, is not paid remotely at the minimum wage.”


The confidence of detainees in Yarl’s Wood to speak out against their injustices and link them with wider social struggles may be a defining moment in how society understands the criminalisation of asylum-seekers. There is a clear role to be played by groups on the outside in amplifying their demands and building a broad base of support for their resistance.


  1. i have worked there in yar’ls for £1.50 a day its hard when you in there they use u yet if you on the out u not allowed to work

  2. Those women in Yarls Wood are really bold and brave!!This fight is highly inspiring for building a civil rights and immigrants rights movement that can change our society for the better!!!

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