Why do we harm asylum-seekers?

For me, the most upsetting domestic news this weekend was the alleged assault of a female inmate in Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre. 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.

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, end up being held and further brutalised in our civilised country.

And no one cares because, well, they are "lying foreigners", the two 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.  

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 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 civilised country. Is it really? I have said so before and do so again: I wish the UK were much more authentically civilised.

Some do, of course, a dwindling number. But the rest betray the central tenets of civilisation, 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.

The Independent


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