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THE site of a youth prison where hundreds of boys and young men were physically and sexually abused is to become an immigration detention centre for women.
The former Medomsley detention centre in Co Durham is due to open in the autumn to hold 85 female asylum-seekers, despite previous Home Office pledges to reduce the detention estate.
Recently established local campaigns against the plans have raised concerns about detainees’ welfare, access to legal support and a lack of scrutiny of the proposals.
Objections have also been raised about how reopening the site could affect the local community and former inmates who have been left scarred by the abuse that they suffered there.
Medomsley detention centre was built in 1960 to hold youths aged 17 to 21 who had committed minor offences. It closed in 1988.
In 2013, Durham Police launched Operation Seabrook to investigate allegations of historic abuse at the site, and have since received reports from 1,848 men.
Chef Neville Husband, who later became a church minister, was said to have raped boys “almost on a daily basis.” He was jailed in 2003 for abusing five teenagers at the unit and died seven years later.
Durham People’s Assembly, in a statement opposing the new use of the site, said today: “We are opposed to this detention/removal centre for two reasons.
“Firstly, the immorality of incarcerating people who are looking for safety, and secondly, because of the horrendous history associated with the site and the impact this still has on the community.”
The facility later became the Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, holding children between 12 and 17 from 1995 to 2015.
In 2004, 14-year-old Adam Rickwood became the youngest child to die in custody in more than a century when he hanged himself at Hassockfield.
Although the buildings on the site have been renovated, they are those of the former centre where the abuse took place.
“People in the north-east as a whole know exactly what Medomsley detention centre is and what went on at the site. It is still very much a ‘live’ issue regionally,” Owain Gardner, a spokesperson for a local campaign against the centre, told the Morning Star.
“It is not something which is going to go away. So, thinking on the retraumatising of the victims of Medomsley detention centre, who have also not been consulted, it is a very peculiar decision for this site to be returned to a role in the Home Office detention estate.”
Jean Huntley, another local resident, told the Star: “The legacy of the place is utterly abhorrent to the people living on its doorstep. I was delighted to hear that it was to be demolished.”
“I feel that it is a deeply harmful direction for the government to be taking,” Ms Huntley continued. “The criminalisation of people who have come here seeking our help is entirely unacceptable.”
Speaking at a Public Assembly meeting on Monday, the former MP for Durham North West Laura Pidcock stressed that the site “is chilling for so many people,” and that the local trauma inflicted by historic abuse there “cannot be underestimated.”
“Do we as a community not want a space where there is a place to heal, a place to think about what happened there and commit for it to never happen again rather than this secondary detention and these awful conditions?” she asked.
Mr Gardner, who is part of the No to Hassockfield campaign, told the Star he has received reports that detainees at the site will be denied all visiting rights, including legal visits, by the Home Office.
He also raised concerns over the lack of transparency and scrutiny of the plans, adding that there has been "no public consultation” with the community.
The No to Hassockfield campaign has received support from Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs.
Labour MP and former shadow immigration minister Bell Ribeiro-Addy told the Morning Star the government’s plans to open new detention sites “makes a mockery of their commitment to creating a more compassionate Home Office.”
"Repurposing totally unsuitable sites such as barracks or former prisons to detain vulnerable migrants is a stark example of how the UK's hostile environment continues to re-traumatise the individuals passing through it," she said.
Refugee rights groups have also spoken out against the site, claiming most women held in detention are known to be survivors of trafficking, torture or sexual violence.
Women for Refugee Women director Alphonsine Kabagabo said opening the centre would be a “betrayal” of the government’s previous commitment to reduce vulnerable people in these facilities.
It comes after the Home Office last year emptied the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire of its 400 women. However reports now claim that the department is building a new network of women’s detention units across the country, including the one at Medomsley.
A former detainee at Yarl’s Wood and community organiser Agnes Tanoh has launched a petition against the new centre. “Women become depressed and suicidal in detention,” she said. “I don’t want to see this happen to any of my sisters.”
The site had previously been earmarked for a housing development, but local MP Richard Holden announced in January that the centre would reopen.
The Home Office said that no children will be held at the site and that detainees are entitled to visitation rights as in other immigration removal centres.
Minister for Immigration Compliance Chris Philp said: “The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this.
"The Home Office has acquired the former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in County Durham and will open it as an immigration removal centre (IRC) for around 80 women by the autumn.
“Plans for the IRC are undergoing finalisation and we will continue to engage over the coming months.”
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