The detention regime through its chaplaincy services

This blog post which sheds light on a little-discussed aspect of detention – the chaplaincy services available at every centre – is written by Gayle Munro.  Gayle has insight into the world of UK immigration detention in two different ways.  She has been a ‘First Responder’ for the Salvation Army’s trafficking team; and in also conducting research into chaplaincy services – the provision of religious services – within detention centres. In this blog post for Unlocking Detention, she is writing in a personal capacity and the views expressed here do not represent those of her employer.

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As a First Responder as part of the National Referral Mechanism,  interviewing potential victims of trafficking in detention, it’s necessary for me to gather a considerable amount of detail about the person’s life, background and migration experiences. The interview is conducted in a small featureless room, designated for legal visits. As such, the only access I have to the detention centre is to the interview room itself and to the visiting reception area, where the visit is logged and any belongings can be stored in a locker.  While I may have learned a great deal about the person I was interviewing, I would gather only a limited, snapshot impression of life at the centre itself.

By contrast, the visits to detention centres which I conducted researching chaplaincy services in detention offered only fleeting glimpses into the individual lives of those detained and yet afforded substantial access to the different parts of the building and to a more generalised picture of daily life in detention.

I conducted interviews with different chaplains, sat in on meetings between the chaplains and the centre management (governors), was shown around the different parts of the centre and shadowed the chaplains on their daily routines. The areas I was afforded access to included: the reception area where new people entering the detention centre are ‘processed’, the sleeping blocks (cells), eating areas, education areas (including library, computer room and art room), multi-faith worship and prayer spaces, bathrooms, exercise spaces, staff rooms and offices.

Some of the UK’s immigration removal centres were originally built as prisons and the fluidity between the detention and the prison estates – with many foreign national ex-offenders kept in prison long after their release date, now under immigration powers – means that the cultural blueprint of the criminal justice system is ingrained in so many of the centres.   So many (visible and some not so tangible) symbols are shared between the two regimes: from individual staff members, uniforms, contract holders, branding and security paraphernalia to that less physical but equally sentient phenomenon of ‘banter’ which permeates the staffing culture of both estates and which, presumably, has been borne out of the staff’s ways of coping in a difficult working environment. Indeed, it was perhaps not wholly surprising to learn that in centres where the majority of those detained who have a faith are Muslims, some of the most intense support work carried out by Christian chaplains is not with those detained but with the centre’s staff.

So many public spaces nowadays aim to meet the spiritual needs of those who pass through them by providing areas designated as ‘multi-faith’ spaces. However, in areas such as hospitals or airports, it is expected that the populations who use their services are mainly transient. Those who staff such spaces are the most consistent users of such areas, others who worship or pray are mainly there for a specific (time-limited) purpose. The nature of indefinite detention however means that those who are unfortunate enough to be detained could be using those multi-faith spaces for many months or even years.

For those whose practice it is to use such spaces several times a day, it would be only natural to begin to personalise such space or to develop a certain ‘territorialisation’ whereby the ‘multi-faith’ nature of the space inevitably becomes weakened over time.  Quite often the chaplain, as opposed to those detained, could start to perceive that the inclusive nature of the space is being threatened. I witnessed for example a tense discussion between one (Muslim) individual detained in a centre who was very upset at the (Christian) chaplain entering the multi-faith space wearing shoes. (The chaplain’s argument was that he had the right to wear shoes as the space was ‘not a mosque’).

In addition to serving the spiritual needs of those detained within the centre, another aspect of the chaplaincy role is to take on a pastoral/welfare support figure for those in the centre who are unwell, those on hunger strike, those who have been placed in solitary confinement and those newly arrived at the centre who will receive an initial visit from one of the chaplains to explain the role of the chaplaincy service.

It was visits to those newly detained individuals which I found particularly painful to witness. There were a number of impressions which remained with me each time I left the centres and returned blinking into the daylight in the outside world. The smell within the eating areas and sleeping areas where the air was stifling and where men were sleeping in terribly cramped spaces was absolutely overpowering and remained with me for several hours after leaving.

The overwhelming feeling of physical claustrophobia of the building itself was reinforced by the less physical but equally intense feeling of a mixture of emotions filling the hallways and communal spaces: a mix of tension, panic, boredom, depression, resignation, stubbornness, anger and desperation.

What ultimately remained with me however and what kept me awake at night was the look of sheer bewilderment on the face of one young man in particular from Afghanistan who had been detained the day before and who was receiving the compulsory introductory visit from the cheerful and kind chaplain who was introducing herself and explaining how she might be able to help. The young man was in the computer centre with a group of other young men, looking defiant and seemingly busy, in heated discussion. He was called away for his brief visit by the chaplain to a quieter space for a few minutes. Initially appearing on guard, he relaxed for a few minutes in response to her kind manner and at that moment he appeared much younger than he had initially. His bewilderment at his situation shone through, his eyes filled with tears and his chin wobbled. The chaplain responded with brisk kindness. And I had to look away as I knew any emotional response from me would not have been helpful.

For many of those detained, the role of the chaplaincy service is to minister to spiritual needs whilst in detention. For others however, including those of different or no faith, the chaplain can provide a friendly human face, and can offer pastoral support at a time of substantial need. In such an intense environment, however, and considering the long-term nature of the multi-faith space, the need to afford respect and understanding for the different practices and rituals of all expressions of faith is crucial.

Image: Michael Collins for Unlocking Detention

3 Comments Posted

  1. As a Christian (and a human!), I was very upset witnessing the conditions in Brook House detention Centre last night on tv. I’d be very grateful to find out more through your blogs. Also, whether there are practical ways someone could help. We do not live far from Gatwick.

  2. As another christian (and also human being) – see above post – I would like to know whether there is a Chaplaincy Team currently at Brook House and whether there is a team of Visitors (Voluntary) assisting the multi faith Chaplaincy?

    Thank you

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