The new facility is expected to hold up to 80 women at a time when it opens on the site of the former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre and notorious Medomsley detention centre this autumn.
A group of cross-party politicians, including former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey and former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have written to Priti Patel with “grave concerns” about the “inhumane” centre.
The letter claims the Home Office is pushing ahead with its plans before completing an equality impact assessment which “risks exposing already vulnerable women to yet more discrimination and harm”.
It also suggests the government has “abandoned” its commitment to reducing the use of detention following the publication of Stephen Shaw’s 2016 and 2018 reviews of immigration detention.
According to the correspondence, women will continue to be detained in units at Yarl’s Wood, Dungavel, and Colnbrook immigration removal centres (IRCs).
The letter claims it has also been suggested women and men will be detained under immigration powers together at a new short-term holding facility at Morton Hall, in Lincolnshire, when it converts from a detention centre to a prison later this year.
“As you will be aware, the detention of women has been raised as an issue of concern by parliamentarians across the political spectrum for many years,” the letter states.
“Many people detained by the Home Office are survivors of torture, trafficking and/or other serious abuses, and their mental health can be negatively affected by the experience of detention in profound and lasting ways. This is the situation for many of the women detained.
“We urge you to reconsider your approach, to cancel all plans for a new IRC for women at Hassockfield with immediate effect, and to instead refocus the department’s resources on efforts to reduce detention, including via community-based alternatives.”
The letter was coordinated by Alison Thewliss, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention, and City of Durham Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy.
Ms Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central, said: “We are deeply concerned about the UK government’s plans to proceed with a detention centre for women at Hassockfield, a decision which contradicts its position of working to reduce the number of people entering detention.
“Recent reports by the ICIBI and others have laid bare the unacceptable conditions that exist in the Home Office’s detention estate. It is improper that ministers are pressing ahead with these plans without fully acknowledging these problems, and before the long awaited Equality Impact Assessments have been completed.
“Many of the women who will be held at Hassockfield will be vulnerable, and we remain worried about the further negative impacts on their health should they be detained there.
“We know that detention can have profound consequences for people’s wellbeing, and we urge the Home Office to rethink their decision and instead focus on reducing detention.”
Ms Foy added: “We know alternatives to detention are more humane, more efficient, and more cost-effective than detention centres, so why is the government opening a new centre in County Durham to imprison vulnerable asylum-seeking women?
“Rather than wasting taxpayers’ money on detention centres out of a slavish commitment to the hostile environment, the government should fund alternatives to detention and cancel this inhumane centre.”
Agnes Tanoh, a campaigner with Women for Refugee Women who was held at Yarl’s Wood for more than three months after claiming asylum, said she “still struggles with the emotional impact of being locked up when I most needed safety” despite obtaining refugee status.
She said: “I know how detention destroys a woman. Women become depressed and suicidal in detention. I don’t want to see this happen to any of my sisters who are looking for safety.”
Dr Rachel Bingham, from charity Medical Justice, added: “Our volunteer doctors have assessed hundreds of women detained at Yarl’s Wood, documenting harms to health in immigration detention, including severe deterioration in mental health, high rates of self-harm, and escalating suicide risk.
“We have drawn the Home Office’s attention repeatedly to medical evidence of the inherently harmful nature of immigration detention, yet they intend to repeat this damaging practice at Hassockfield IRC.”
The site of the planned centre near Consett, in County Durham, was once home to Medomsley Detention Centre – where hundreds of young offenders were physically and sexually abused during the 1970s and 1980s.
It later became Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, where 14-year-old Adam Rickwood became the youngest person to die in UK custody in recent times when he took his own life in 2004.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention plays a crucial role in a robust immigration system and a significant proportion of women detained are facing deportation because of criminal offences.
“The immigration removal estate is kept under ongoing review to ensure that the Home Office has sufficient resilience, geographical footprint and capacity for the men and women it is necessary to detain for the purposes of removal, while providing value for money.
“The needs of women are safeguarded by the existing Detention Centre Rules, Operating Standards for Immigration Removal Centres and Detention Services Orders, including specific guidance on women in detention.
“Hassockfield will be operated in line with these provisions.”