Campsfield House is widely considered one of the ‘better-run’ IRCs and the last report by HMIP, the official inspection body, vouched for this. Most people detained there, who have experienced other IRCs, like Harmondsworth or Brook House, agree in my experience. But for all that, the effect of detention on people in Campsfield is still profoundly toxic. The fact that Campsfield House is branded “well-run” arguably deflects criticism from the inherent ill-effects of detention and lends specious support to the argument that our current system of immigration detention is acceptable.
Originally a young offender institution, the Campsfield House site became an IRC in 1993. At one time it held both men and women – but since 1997 only men have been held there. The contract for running the Centre was awarded to Mitie in May 2011. The Centre Manager is the impressive Neil Aubeelack whose background is in the military and HM Prison Service, a background shared in common with a number of Campsfield House staff.
It may not be the official company line but, ‘four star holiday camp’, is a phrase that crops up with some regularity talking with Campsfield House staff. Reading the more critical findings of the most recent report from the independent inspectorate of detention centres, HMIP, one gets a different take. The report found that there is a high level of surveillance – so staff know a great deal about your life and daily activities – there is very little privacy. Rooms are searched once a month and further searched with drug dogs once every three months. Handcuffs were used in a little under a third of cases for external appointments. Sanctions can be used for non-cooperation with powers to place people in cells in an austere separation unit, without mobile phones. There were 74 job roles, mainly mundane, such as cleaning, kitchen and laundry work paid at a token rate. There had been a self-inflicted death, children wrongly detained and there was no awareness of people who were disabled. Poor Home Office casework led to unnecessarily long periods of detention and there was a lack of interpreters for important and sensitive meetings. In addition there was a lack of defibrillators and staff trained in their use along with inadequate healthcare staff available at night.
Your first impression as a visitor to Campsfield House is the sheer volume of razor wire – its prominence means it’s difficult to make out the buildings inside the secure perimeter. The last Inspection Report commented on it “creating an oppressive atmosphere in some areas”.
After getting through the double security gates to reception, inside feels less intimidating to me. People being detained may feel differently as they arrive, perhaps following a heavy handed immigration raid at their home in front of family and children. As HMIP noted, people being detained at Campsfield House often arrive at night to a cramped reception area, where reception processes can take hours and risk assessments for new arrivals frequently are not held in private. As a visitor, who’s free to leave, after being fingerprinted and photographed and having your ID documents checked, you’re led out of the reception hut across a tarmac compound to another security fence and gate, then across an attractive garden tended by people in detention though not available for their use.
A further set of security gates leads you through to the Visitors Centre. At the front-desk in the Visitors Centre your security pass is checked and your details confirmed again on the computer system. You’re then allocated a table number where you must sit, while you wait for the ‘detainee’ to arrive – no-one is allowed to accompany them, even when an interpreter is needed, because in the words of an incantation one hears frequently, “those are the rules”.
Campsfield House staff
On a tour of the Centre a visitor sees plenty of activities going on, although the maze of similar seeming corridors can feel daunting and disorienting. Staff are mainly friendly and polite and do remarkably well given the 12 hour shifts they have to work. You get the impression, though, that visitors from NGOs are seen as strange animals by staff – maybe uncertain of the role NGOs play, perhaps seeing their own role as taking care of all the welfare needs of people entrusted to their care.
Some staff have explained that at least the most vulnerable are looked after well in the Centre. Certainly HMIP praises staff relations with people detained at Campsfield. It may sound strange but I find all the staff likeable, concerned and thoughtful – admirable in many ways, people for whom I have a lot of respect. However, in the many conversations with staff, the very fact of being deprived of one’s liberty never seems to register as a big thing, even though it is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights the world-over. Even in the much harsher times of Magna Carta ‘liberty’ was a big deal. You realise why very quickly as a visitor – incarceration very rapidly drives people ‘crazy’.
Perhaps to work in any role you have to believe in what you’re doing – mentally minimising harmful effects and focusing on what you believe you are doing for the good. Almost to a person, the staff at Campsfield seem to believe in what they are doing. This is what is so worrying to my mind, because it shows how institutions condition our thinking and actions, and the effects on the people detained are truly disturbing. In some cases the effects are stark.
I recently visited a man, Mahmoud, who had been tortured on a number of separate occasions by Government forces in his home country, known to fiercely oppress, torture and kill the minority ethnic group he belongs to. He told me he had tried to take his own life in Campsfield House by swallowing a cocktail of tablets. When discovered, he told me, he had not been sent to hospital by medical staff at the Centre. Eventually released on bail with help from the charity Medical Justice, he had already been in detention for a month when visiting started. At the beginning of the visits he was palpably terrified and told of hearing voices. Every time a door banged his distress was visibly acute – and he was under regular observation in a unit where the doors, I’m told, clang shut with a lot of noise. Staff who were concerned about his welfare, took on a different symbolic value, dressed in uniform, with jangling keys, acting as his jailers. At night lying in his cell in Campsfield House, he felt he was suffocating, hands round his throat trying to choke him.
Of course, torture survivors should not be detained because they are retraumatised as the detention centre brings back overwhelming memories of imprisonment at the hands of their tormentors. Indeed, torture survivors are among the groups of people the Home Office’s own rules exclude from detention, but in practice this doesn’t always work. As HMIP noted in their last inspection report, although Campsfield House is a ‘well-run’ Centre, the Rule 35 reports written by doctors are of limited value as they don’t express a clinical opinion. For instance, an opinion on whether the symptoms and scars a person has are consistent with, or highly consistent with, or definitively diagnostic of, the torture they describe. As a result, Home Office responses are frequently dismissive, and the Rule 35 reports meant to protect victims of torture and other vulnerable people and secure their release, are ineffective in Campsfield House.
In this context the following observations by HMIP about bail rights and legal access at Campsfield House become all the more worrying: “Only about a third said they had received a visit from [a lawyer]….Waiting times for the [legal] surgeries were too long, sometimes over two weeks… All detainees should have received ongoing representation during bail proceedings but we were not assured this was happening….Only 40% of detainees said it was easy to obtain bail information… Not enough was being done to advise detainees of their bail rights”.
Cases of highly vulnerable people, like Mahmoud, who shouldn’t be detained in Campsfield House are by no means uncommon in my experience. Even where people have no pre-existing vulnerability the effects of detention over any length of time are distressing to see.
Another gentleman I visited, Adam, was from a country with notorious human rights abuses and genocide. On finishing University in the capital he was conscripted into the army. After the initial training he was expected to serve on duty – which meant complicity in the persecution of any number of declared ‘enemies’ of the regime. Rather than participate he fled the army and the country and made his way to Europe, thinking Britain had a strong record on championing human rights and asylum claims.
When we first met, Adam, a highly articulate intelligent man who spoke very good English, was humorous, friendly, chatty and participating in many of the activities at the Centre as well as patiently explaining basic Arabic to me. He was also generously providing me with an education in diaspora authors from his own country who had settled in exile whose work frequently dealt with this most difficult of experiences. Over the few months Adam was detained the deterioration in his mental state was alarming but sadly not untypical. When he first came to Campsfield House he would wake at 7.30am, get up for breakfast, then take English and computing classes in the morning and early afternoon, and participate in football games in the later afternoon. He was praying, as was his custom, 5 times a day.
After 3 months in Campsfield House his condition was very different. He woke up at around the same time but didn’t get out of bed until nearly noon. He would then sit outside thinking for an hour or so until lunch for which he had little appetite. He then spent many hours after lunch sitting outside, watching football if people were playing, but not playing himself. He would often sit like this until dinner. After dinner he might watch football on television. He would go to his room when Campsfield shut down for the night at 11pm – but didn’t get to sleep until 3 or 4 am. He frequently had bad dreams which disturbed the little sleep he did get. Much of the time he spent thinking about his situation in Campsfield House and also thinking about his home country. He thought a lot about his family, all of whom (mother, father, sisters, brothers) were in a refugee camp. While in detention, he heard that his mother was seriously ill following a stroke. He said he often felt hopeless and prayed much less frequently – some days not praying at all. Although prohibited by his religion he sometimes wished he wasn’t alive and thought of taking his life. He also started experiencing pains around his sternum and rib cage and thought maybe it was God’s will he should die.
Even with a well-run IRC one wonders how anyone would cope if placed in Campsfield House for months with no definite date for release. Only in a truly dystopian world should one view these places with alacrity.