A civilised country doesn’t bang up asylum-seekers

People who flee to us for help end up being held and further brutalised in our country



For me, the most upsetting domestic news this weekend was the alleged sexual assault of a female inmate in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. A 29-year-old Pakistani woman claims she was molested three times by a member of staff.

The place is run by Serco, a giant private conglomerate that builds and runs penal complexes which hold those who say they fear victimisation in their own countries.

A high number of applicants fail to get the right to stay and are returned by the authorities to unknown futures in their homelands. Now a confidential internal report by Serco, made public after months of legal wrangles, shows that inmates have been disbelieved when they complained about unacceptable treatment and that transgressions were effectively kept from the media.

Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, says the committee will summon and question the senior Serco management. Why now and not before? 

There have been serious complaints about racism, violence and abuse by staff at other such human warehouses. This has been going on for years and the inmates now have to be heard. Currently, around 3,000 people are held and most Britons don’t know who they are or how they are kept. And don’t want to either.

I have seen children in similar centres, and heard creditable reports of self-harming and hunger strikes. In March this year, on Mothering Sunday, 40-year-old Christine Case from Jamaica died of a heart attack in Yarl’s Wood.

An inquest is looking into the causes. Her friend, another detainee, said: “We feel very unsafe and frightened, as if no one cares about what happens.”

Men and women who flee to us for help, trying to find a way to live and not die or be tortured or raped, end up being held and further brutalised in our civilised country. And no one cares because, well, they are “lying bloody foreigners”, the three words most used by readers who write in when I defend incomers and refuge seekers.

OK, so what of true British prisoners? Do those on the outside empathise with them, mostly kith and kin, after all? Alas, no. The country seems to have become more punitive and spiteful, possibly irreversibly right-wing.

I recently went to the Clink, a restaurant in Brixton Prison where convicts make and serve fine food. One of the backers, Kevin McGrath, a successful entrepreneur, said re-offending rates for those who got this experience was around eight per cent, compared with the national rate of 48 per cent.

Most diners I met had never been into a prison or talked to inmates. I hope they left with more understanding and less malice. Earlier this year, when Chris Grayling stopped books from being sent to prisoners, campaigners and writers united and fought against the barbaric order. It was a rare moment of concern about prisoners.

The International Centre for Prison Studies publishes figures of prisoners per 100,000 people in the population. Britain bangs up more people than do China, Kenya and Nigeria. Maybe in those countries they have other forms of savage punishments but, even so, our figures – now nearly 85,000 – reveal a proclivity and an appetite for retribution and little mercy.

Between January and April this year, 26 people killed themselves in prison. No other Western European country jails more people than England and Wales combined. It makes no sense. A child with a parent in prison is highly likely to be antisocial, to suffer mental health problems and end up committing crimes.      

This is, they say, a Christian country. Is it really? Or is its Christianity now only for the spend fest of Christmas and a choc fest at Easter? I have said so before and do so again: I wish the UK were much more authentically Christian, and that believers truly practised the faith.

Some do, of course, a dwindling number. But the rest betray the central tenets, the messages brought by God’s son, those core values and sentiments. Or maybe in the super-fast train of modern life, they have forgotten what these were. Sorry if I sound preachy. But hear me out.

Every one of the prime ministers I have lived under has been seen going to church. The Royal Family does that, too, ostentatiously. They troop out on Sundays, wear those hats and pious faces, show us how good and true they are.

But their consciences are not shaken by the unequal society they preside over; they appear to think divine approval gives them wealth and power, and they do not embrace forgiveness or rehabilitation, nor the belief that the bad are still the children of God, that they, too, can get back on the right road.

No child is born a villain. Parents, even those who are themselves criminals, want to believe their kids can be saved. But that can’t be done if we, the people, write them off and have no faith in redemption.

One former priest who works with  ex-offenders rang me yesterday: “They’d arrest, attack and imprison Christ if he came down to us today. Too poor, too dishevelled, uttering mad thoughts, anti-wealth, against ruling elites, a Middle Eastern refugee in a gown, with a beard and long hair. Put him away. Throw away the keys. Torture him to get info. In a secret court. Who have we become?”

You tell me and him. And Jesus.

Twin Mantel plays are an object lesson in the pursuit of power

Last Saturday, we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell. The guarded, intelligent, devious son of a Putney blacksmith engineered marriage annulments for Henry VIII, became chief minister and promoted the English Reformation.

He was the Peter Mandelson of his time, but with a lawyer’s brain, a bureaucrat’s exactitude and an accountant’s obsessions. Mantel’s novels burrow deep into motives and personalities, make you understand how men and women, rulers and their henchmen, bishops and aristocrats seek ascendancy but never feel safe or wholly righteous.

How could two fat, layered, probing novels be turned into plays? They were, and spectacularly so. Ben Miles as Cromwell, back from the dead; Nathaniel Parker as Henry; and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn – all swept us away. The audience was ecstatic. Only one thing spoilt the mood. Next to me was an arts editor for a broadsheet newspaper. I tried and got a short, brusque conversation out of her. But she rebuffed my husband and over six hours did everything to make sure she was not spoken to again.

At the after-show party, the stars, RSC artistic director Greg Doran, the masterly script writer Mike Poulton, and Mantel herself mingled and talked warmly to guests. (Mantel likes my columns, so I will die happy.)

It just shows: real talent doesn’t need to be stupidly self-important. Ms Ice Block mag hack who froze us out should learn that.


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