This piece was written for Unlocking Detention by Yann, a member of the Freed Voices group.
Freed Voices are a group of experts-by-experience who are dedicated to speaking out about the realities of detention in the UK and campaigning for detention reform.
It was originally published by the Justice Gap, an online magazine about the law and justice, who are partnering with the Detention Forum to host #Unlocked15 articles.
I was picked up by immigration from my house at 7pm on a Thursday. I had no idea they were coming. I thought they were police trying to find out if I’d seen a crime in the local area. Even when they said they were there for me, I wasn’t worried. I thought I’d be off for a few days, answer a few questions, then come back home. I ended up staying the night in a police cell. When I woke up the next morning, an immigration officer came and told me I was going to Brook House.
I had never heard of detention before, let alone Brook House. The officer tried to calm me saying: ‘There’s nothing to worry about. You can play football over there mate, you’ll be fine.’
The van came to pick me up in the evening. At first, I was the only person in there. But over the next three hours it filled up. Soon, there were six of us. Four of them were being taken to Dover IRC, and two of us to Brook House. We drove all the way down to Dover first. We arrived around midnight. It was dark and blurry looking through the window but I could still make out what looked like a huge old prison with a massive gate. The guards outside looked enormous – the size of three people on top of each other. I was terrified. I had no idea whatsoever we were being taken anywhere like that. As the van pulled away, I tried to remain focused and stay calm. I kept my head down.
We arrived at Brook House at 3am.
The entrance was not as bad as Dover. The surroundings were a bit less aggressive. By that point I was tired and hungry. I barely took in what was around me, I was exhausted. My fingerprints and photo were taken and I was quickly seen by a nurse. They took me to the compound where the rooms were and I thought to myself: ‘This all looks familiar.’ I’d seen this kind of set-up in American prison films. Everything about the way it looked, the way it smelt, the way it felt – it was a jail. Eventually, they took me to my cell. There was another person in there. I was shocked, I couldn’t believe how small it was. They gave me a phone and I immediately called friends and family to let them know where I was. I went to sleep that night at 5am.
As soon as I woke up I wanted to find out what my rights were and why I was here. I wanted to know when I was going to be released and if I could get bail. It was difficult because these legal issues are not my domain. There was no advice, no assistance. Even the welfare officer apologised that he could not give me more information. I started to speak to people who had been in Brook House for over a year. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that there was no time-limit on detention and I had no idea people could be held for that long. But I was still optimistic, I was determined not to be in there that long.
Brook House runs like a prison. They open the cell at 8am and then close it at 11.30am. They open it again at 12pm for lunch. Shut again at 4.30pm. Open again at 5pm for dinner and then close at 8.30pm till the following morning.
There is a window in your cell but you can’t open it. Over the period I was at Brook House I had a huge drop in my Vitamin D because there was no access to light. I got no fresh air. I felt suffocated.
When I was not in my cell I spent every moment I could doing research on how best to get out of detention. Brook House has a list of solicitors provided and chosen by the Home Office. If you had a private solicitor or a legal aid solicitor from a firm they hadn’t chosen they would make it difficult for you to see them. This is what happened to me and in the end I was forced to represent myself.
That actually became the main thing that got me through Brook House. I would go to the library and IT room every day to work on my case. It helped me focus when everything else around me was falling apart. I was determined not to become one of those people who are destroyed in detention. And there are many people like that. You would see them walking around talking to themselves. Some of them cut their wrists. Some of them try to commit suicide they are so desperate.
I missed my family a lot when I was in Brook House. At the beginning I spoke to them over the phone but I felt too mentally fragile to have them come and visit me. I didn’t want them to see me in that position. I felt vulnerable. I knew they would feel my pain and that felt like a double punishment. My family was emotionally impacted by my detention. They were really concerned about me. It also affected my social life. I struggled to keep up relationships with some of my friends when I was in detention. My support structure fell away. That left me feeling even more isolated.
I started to speak to the other people in detention. Everyone agreed we had to do something and I started to represent our collective voice. I complained about the lock-up hours and explained why I thought they were wrong. We had a meeting with the staff at Brook House in the morning and by the evening, I had been taken to solitary – the prison within a prison. You are locked up 23 hours in a cell with nothing other than your mattress. Two nights later they transferred me to Morton Hall and I was there for another year before I was transferred onto Colnbrook, and then Harmondsworth.
Altogether, I was detained for over a year and a half before I was released back into the community. Really, I should not have been in Brook House for more than 28 days, maximum. This is the outer limit. It is time the Home Office complied with their own policy; that detention should only be used as a last resort, and when removal is imminent. There are no excuses left for them.