In her latest inspection report, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, expresses serious concern at the plight of a small number of scared and isolated single women asylum seekers held in the largely male establishment of Tinsley House. In the criminal justice system, if women are to be detained in prison, they would never be placed in a men’s prison.
This issue was raised in a report published at the start of December by the Women’s Asylum Charter – supported by over 200 organisations. Every Single Woman reported that at Tinsley House a woman can regularly be the only female detainee surrounded by 116 males. With such a disproportionate number of females to males, women feel intimidated, scared and isolated.
In Every Single Woman we made reference to the findings of an earlier investigation into Tinsley House by the Chief Inspector held in March 2008, where she reported: “We were particularly troubled by the plight of single women. At one point during the inspection there was only one and she lay in bed most of the day avoiding the communal accommodation. The amount and quality of accommodation now afforded to single women had been reduced, and they appeared marginalised and almost forgotten. They were left to share facilities within a mainly male establishment and this could be both embarrassing and intimidating. Their situation should be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
More recently, women in Tinsley House told the Chief Inspector they felt unsafe and uncomfortable mixing in communal areas with male detainees. This meant not only leisure facilities, such as they exist, including the gym but in areas such as the dining room. The Chief Inspector noticed piecemeal improvements, such as in the clinic there were notices explaining that female detainees could see female staff, including doctors and nurses. But her latest report, released on 18th December, more than 18 months after the previous report into the same centre, states: “On our return for this unannounced follow-up inspection, conditions had generally deteriorated and the arrangements for children and single women were now wholly unacceptable.”
The limited nature of any improvements at Tinsley House, such as they are, which take place alongside worsening conditions in other areas, expose the lack of a strategic approach both within the centre and within the wider asylum system for ensuring women seeking asylum receive gender-sensitive treatment.
The Chief Inspector’s report states “there were no specific policies or strategic initiatives to address their needs … There was no clear time-limited strategy with an accompanying action plan to show progress. There was no oversight from any management committee.”
Supporters of the Women’s Asylum Charter believe that people who come to the UK to claim asylum should not be detained but if they are, “Women asylum seekers detained in Immigration Removal Centres should receive, at a minimum, a comparable standard of treatment and facilities to women in prisons in the UK.”
And following such a damning report from the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency needs to take action. Firstly in the instance of Tinsley House it must conclude women can no longer be housed there or, as the Chief Inspector suggests, that the opening of Brook House nearby might allow Tinsley House to be refurbished to hold only families and single women. But more importantly the UK Border Agency needs a change of culture designed to produce a genuinely gender-sensitive asylum system to ensure that women asylum seekers receive a comparable standard of treatment to women in similar situations who are settled in the UK, and so that situations such as those that have arisen in Tinsley House cannot do so in future.