The voices of the hunger strikers

Frances Laing spoke to some of the hunger strikers over the weekend

Activists show their solidarity with the hunger strikers | Photo: Frances Laing

Denise McNeil is from Jamaica. Her brother was murdered there and she fears for her family. The mother of two spoke to me on the telephone from Yarl’s Wood Kingfisher segregation block on Saturday 20 February.  Denise seemed very weak and tired. She told me she was ‘so depressed’ and hadn’t been outside for two weeks. Sanitary conditions are ‘disgusting’ she said. ‘No water in the tap’, and the toilets were ‘not flushing’. She had been placed on suicide watch. As we spoke a male officer stood at the door. There were no proper medical facilities.

I asked Denise about her children and their education. They are sixteen and seven years of age. Her oldest child is doing GCSEs. She’s trying to get her youngest child into school. He has not been going to school for more than two months and is staying with relatives. He sometimes cries and wants to see mummy. He ‘needs to be in school’, Denise said. She’s worried her parental rights are being taken away from her and hopes for ‘stability… to get out and be with my children’. Denise has had problems gaining telephone access to the social workers who are managing her son’s case. They phone up she said, and she is not always called to the phone. She said: ‘I gave them authorisation to take the child to the shop – they tried to take eight photos to prepare travel documents for him and me to go out of the country’. Denise refused to do it. ‘I did not give them authorisation’, she said.

Verna Joseph, originally from St Lucia is thirty-five and says she won her case with the Home Office on Article 3 – she cannot go back ‘because of things that happened’. She had been kidnapped and tortured and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome and bad nightmares. She told me she has been at Yarl’s Wood for six months and is illegally detained.

Verna described how she can’t walk around without observation. ‘They open my letters and hold mail back’. She said ‘they wouldn’t normally do that but they are now doing it with everyone who was on the corridor when the hunger strike started’. Verna has children. They are not here in the UK.

Shaunice Bignall, aged twenty-six, has been at Yarl’s Wood for two and a half months. I asked her why she was on hunger strike. She said: ‘It all started on the basis of how long they are keeping us and how they are treating us here. We were given white chicken with feathers on it. Blood coming out of it. They put the thermostat into the chicken and told us to eat it because it was cooked. Then there is the way they take people away on flights. Male officers pull them on to the floor. They are powerless… we decided to do the hunger strike…’

Shaunice told me she was one of the women who climbed through the window on the Monday when the hunger strike started. She said: ‘I was actually one of the two people who were beaten by officers. I was kicked in my face and sustained other injuries. I was then taken into isolation and kept there for four days.

‘I tried to hang myself. I had very abusive childhood domestic violence and have flashbacks. Four days later I was moved to the induction unit. After I tried to hang myself officers cut the ligature. I was on top of the wardrobe. Officers pulled me down onto the floor and into a safe cell. I was kept there until the following morning. Kept in the cell for twelve hours. Two Serco officers came in then first and suggested I take antidepressants. They were not doctors. Then the doctor came. I’m on suicide watch.’

Shaunice had more news about Denise on Sunday afternoon: ‘Today at 8 o’clock I could hear screams… coming from the isolation unit… where they were still holding another person that was abused by officers. Denise… about ten minutes to nine I received a text from Denise. In the text she said that they had beaten her… they cuffed her and they had dragged her into a van.’ She was told she was being moved to Colnbrook for an interview and ‘she said she was in a lot of pain’. Shaunice confirmed there has been a ‘backlash’ and repercussions. Denise McNeill was not answering her phone.

Shaunice said: ‘the home secretary was here – Alan Johnson on the fourth of February, they had a “freeze” [where no-one is allowed to move around the facility as] they didn’t want us to speak to him. I have lived in England for nine years… I was in prison for three years. This is like a Nazi camp… that’s how bad the torture is…”

A fourth hunger striker I spoke to on the telephone had also tried to hang herself. She did not wish to be named. Extremely distressed and crying about the ‘lies that were being told,’ she told me about the mobile phones and food at Yarl’s Wood. Serco charges on a daily basis for mobile phones. ‘10p a day is a lot of money to detainees’, she said. ‘Food is very expensive. You earn just one pound an hour for a cleaning session. A carton of juice costs £1.29. You are not allowed to have food brought in from outside’.

Visit http://www.franceslaing.co.uk to read more about the Yarl’s Wood situation.
Visit http://www.qarn.org.uk to learn more about what Quakers are doing about asylum and refugee issues.

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