Paul* was removed from Brook House to Jamaica earlier this year, after being detained for over two years. For the last six months of his detention, he had signed up to return voluntarily. Paul talked to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who supported him during his detention, about his attempt to ‘forget about everything’ that he went through at Brook House. (This is not his real name.)
I was held at Brook for over two years. I’m Jamaican by birth, but had been in the UK over 20 years. I originally stowed away on a ship to get out of Jamaica, to escape persecution. I had built a life for myself in the UK, I had family in London. I made some mistakes in my life and took some bad decisions. Nothing, though, prepared for how me hard it was being in detention. It was really stressful. You are locked up and you just don’t know when you’ll get out.
When I arrived at Brook House, I didn’t know what was going to come next, but I thought something might at least happen quickly – whether they released me or deported me. Other detainees told me about it being possible to get bail, to be released. It was a comfort to me to think there were options. But it didn’t happen. Something happened in the courts, and my bail application had to be withdrawn. I had a solicitor, but to be honest they weren’t much help. Legal aid rules meant it was restricted. And after the try for bail…nothing. I was stuck, just waiting, waiting for news.
At Brook, they lock you up for a lot of the day. We are woken and allowed out at 8am, then locked up at 12 for roll call, then 12.30 is lunch. In the evenings they lock you up again to check everyone at 5, then 5.30 is dinner. In the evenings, there were activities: for example, gym, or church. But you are locked up again in the wing at 8. And there are no windows. There is very little fresh air, and little to do.
In my time at Brook, I shared cells with lots of other people. It would often be 4 or 5 in the morning when a new person was moved in with me. I would often sit with them and comfort them. They’d just arrived in detention, they didn’t know what to do; they were often in tears. It was so stressful for them. The cells were hard, two of you in the space, and a toilet in the room.
I was aware of a lot of people taking drugs, and a lot of people self-harming. People hurting themselves and needing medical help – it would happen every day.
I’ve seen Panorama [the programme screened 4th September 2017, which showed undercover footage from Brook House, capturing horrifying abuse and attitudes from staff]. Someone sent me the video. There were definitely moments where it was like that [as captured by Panorama]. But when those things were happening, when someone was hurting themselves or clashing with officers, we would all be ushered away. So it was usually hidden.
To cope, I made myself a routine. It was terrible being locked up all the time. I was stressed out, and I knew how hard it would be if I did nothing, if I was left just thinking all the time. So, each day, I went to the gym, I took Spanish classes, and – in the afternoons – I worked in the laundry, trying to save the little money I was paid. I took art classes and even won prizes. That kept me occupied. Because otherwise, the thoughts overwhelm you. People lose their minds in there.
I had a visitor, Mary, from Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who visited me every week and gave me a lot of help, particularly getting healthcare. I needed eye operations while I was held at Brook, and I waited months and months to get the treatment. While I was waiting for my cataract operations, I really struggled to get around the centre. For some time I had one eye with an eye-patch while it recovered from treatment, and one eye still with a cataract, and so I could barely see. I kept walking into things; it was very frustrating. I felt very vulnerable. I remember having to count the steps to the shower so that I could work out where I was.
After a year and a half in detention, I reached a point where I had simply had enough. I thought: release me back to my life in the UK, or remove me to Jamaica, if you must, but please let me get out of Brook. I just didn’t want to be stuck in a prison next to the runway at Gatwick anymore. The Home Office didn’t seem to be doing anything. I didn’t have faith in my solicitor; I could not reach them most of the time, they always seem to busy. I was at a point where I had to make a decision. So I took the hard choice to apply for voluntary return.
When I signed up to return, I thought that at least then I would get out of Brook quickly. But it took nearly 6 months still. My final departure was 4 months after the Home Office had promised. I was on 2 flights that were cancelled. On one of the flights, the airline wouldn’t take me in the end because they thought I might create a problem. But I was leaving on voluntary return! It didn’t make any sense. Mary and I had to keep talking to the High Commission and the Home Office to try to work out what had happened. No-one took responsibility for the mistakes, and no-one seemed to care how distressing it all was for me. I was very down, and desperate.
When I was finally on the flight back to Jamaica, I felt good. I was scared about what would happen when I landed, but I was just processed quickly through the airport and let go.
It’s hard being back in Jamaica in some ways. There’s a lot of poverty and I had been away a long time. But at least I’m not in detention anymore. I’m free now. It’s as if a burden is off my back. I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House. I’m trying to move on. I just want to live.