Meanwhile, the Prisons minister, Ann Widdecombe, cautiously welcomed an offer of help by the Bishop of Rochester but still refused to negotiate with the detainees. "I do not have a deal to offer," she told Radio 4's Sunday Programme. "But I would welcome anything that would assist them coming off the protest."
Fourteen inmates from Nigeria, Algeria, Romania and Zaire have been on hunger strike in the Kent prison for four weeks, claiming they are being treated like convicted criminals while their asylum applications are processed. They have pledged to continue for another two weeks.
The situation became more serious last week when six detainees started refusing water. A Nigerian pastor, Ejike Emenike, 30, was rushed into hospital to have rehydration treatment. He has now rejoined the six men in the hospital wing of the prison. A further eight are refusing food in the prison wings, according to Home Office reports. "None of them are giving cause for immediate concern," said a spokesman yesterday.
On Saturday, more than 100 protesters gathered outside the prison in support of the detainees. They marched around to the side of the prison, cheering when the detainees shouted for their freedom over the walls.
Brian Dubs, spokesman for the Rochester Hunger Strikers' Support Group and Hackney representative for Unison, the public sector union, said: "We wanted to draw as much attention to these people who are just being treated as though they are criminals. The Government seems to be taking an even harder line. They are prepared to allow them to die."
Supporters claim that many inmates have languished in jail for two years while applications are being processed, and one man is still in Rochester seven months after he signed papers for voluntary deportation.
Margaret Illin, whose husband Mircea was detained in Rochester prison for four months last year before being released, said the detainees are often treated worse than convicted criminals.
"Sometimes [after] they receive a visitor they are forced to undergo a strip search," she said. "When all the time they have not done anything wrong. These people have escaped persecution in their own country and come here where they should be safe, but then they are treated worse than criminals."
Maureen West, whose boyfriend Ben Bakesh Hamel is in the hospital wing, is anxious for information about his health. "It is starting to tell on me now," she said. "I phoned this morning and I know that he is not in hospital but I can't get any more information. I don't know much about the political side of it. But I don't think it's fair. I can't see the point in letting people die."