Page last updated at 18:50 GMT, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

View from inside of Yarl's Wood centre in Bedforshire

By Anna Todd
BBC Look East

Yarl's Wood
Women at Yarl's Wood have recently protested over treatment at the site

The relationship between the managers of the Yarl's wood detention centre and the media does not normally extend much beyond reading aloud carefully worded statements outside the security gates.

Inside the main building is a rabbit warren of never ending windowless corridors.

It's a huge place and easy to get disorientated. People, mostly women, are just milling about or meandering their way between legal appointments, the shop, and the hair salon.

The building, far out in the Bedfordshire countryside, is divided into four wings, three for women and one for families.

It is a holding centre for up to 405 people, all at various stages of the immigration process.

I was given a guided tour by Dawn Elaine, the Serco manager, who runs the centre.

She's used to doing this, after 38 visits by MPs and inspectors last year alone.

Serco, the company that runs Yarl's Wood, has spoken for the first time about abuse allegations made by detainees

Before Serco took over in 2007, most of the doors linking each area were locked.

Dawn is proud they have since removed 21 lockable doors.

Huge barred prison gates - signs of the old regime - are no longer used.

Yarl's Wood hit the headlines again recently after a legal challenge was mounted on behalf of four former residents.

They claim they were physically and racially abused during a protest last month.

Dawn shows me the corridor where she admits they were locked for a whole afternoon.

A door being locked at Yarl's Wood
Yarl's Wood detention centre is run by private company Serco

She even admits women were left to urinate on the floor, because they refused to go back to their rooms. But she categorically denies any allegation of abuse.

"I think some of the allegations that have been made very recently have cut [staff] and they have cut me personally," she said.

"I have been very cross at this. I have seen not a moment of racism in this staff group.

"I think they are a very tolerant, multi-cultural staff group and for that allegation to be levelled against them is profoundly unfair."

Fluid situation

I asked her if she would come down heavy-handedly on anyone who did cross that line? "Absolutely," she said. "It would not be tolerated. They would not stay as part of the team."

I saw no obvious signs of distress amongst residents. But then there were a lot of closed doors.

One young Asian woman and her little boy arrived in the family unit looking bewildered and frightened. Her face was ashen. I was told she had probably been arrested that morning.

Positive steps have been taken since Serco took over, including a new school. It's a lovely airy chalet-style building away from the main block. I asked how many children come here?

The teacher told me that it varied. It made me realise how fluid the situation is here and how unsettling that might be. After all, a child in school today could well be on a plane home tomorrow.

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