This piece is written by Rahwa Fessahaye, Advocacy Co-ordinator at Detention Action
The first time I went to Verne IRC was in November 2014, a few weeks after I had returned from maternity leave. I was curious to see the centre as, up until that point, Detention Action had only run workshops in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs. Dorset felt like a world away. As a Londoner, I am perhaps more tolerant than most when it comes to schlepping on public transport, but The Verne is almost as remote an IRC as it gets. Getting off the train at Weymouth in winter set the tone for what would prove a fairly bleak experience. The town has the faded glamour of a seaside resort that, with the advent of cheap holidays abroad isn’t particularly lively in the summer, let alone in more chilly temperatures. My colleague and I walked along road after road trying to find a chippy/café/anything that wasn’t closed.
Once we had found something to eat we took a taxi from Weymouth station to Verne IRC, and got talking to the driver, who was born and raised on Portland. He was pleased that HMP Verne had been converted into an IRC as the closure would have been disastrous for the local economy. We discussed our work and what we did – that we provide practical and emotional support to people in immigration detention, who are being held there indefinitely. The driver seemed utterly bemused that people could be kept in prison like conditions with no release date. It was the first he’d heard of it. Clearly what was going on inside the former prison hadn’t fully reached those outside.
Detention Action has spent the last 20 years working in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRC, and we also visit some clients in London prisons. And yet, there was something entirely unfamiliar and strange about visiting the Verne IRC for the first time. It is run by the prison service, and the process to enter is similar to what it was when it was a prison. It is a sprawling estate, across a huge area. It took us a while walking through various interlocking buildings and going up and down various external flights of stairs to get the canteen, where we were to hold the workshop.
There usually is a frenetic energy whenever we visit other IRCS: people rush up to you and try to get their story out as quickly as they can, they jostle for slots to sit down and talk with us to see whether we can help. The pace in the Verne IRC was sedate in comparison. There was a slow dribble of individuals seeking help, all with specific appointment times, which had been allocated by the officers once they signed up to see us. The numbers attending on that day was low – a problem we don’t usually face in other centres.
The initial calm of the workshop was, however, deceptive. Most of those who came to see us were EEA nationals, who are not eligible for legal aid or for an address from the Home Office which they can use to apply for bail. The majority wanted one and/or both of these things. The atmosphere turned tense as understandably angry and frustrated individuals asked ‘well how can you help then?’ It was the first time in my five years at Detention Action that I had been at a workshop where the majority of attendees were EEA nationals. Suddenly the nature of what we were doing changed. One client asked us to fax a regional court in Romania asking them to send some documents to him – not a request we usually have but we were able to assist. Another man from Latvia had lost his phone during the period which he was held in a police cell and then later imprisoned. Immigration detainees have no access to social media. He accepted that he was likely to go back and seemed fairly OK with this – his main concern was that he wanted his family to know he was going back so they could help him get back on his feet. We were able to Facebook his sister with his new number, which led to them being reunited. It is often the smallest assistance which can make a big difference, as clients face such practical barriers in doing things that we all take for granted on the outside.
We are not lawyers, we are a specialist organisation who can only help certain immigration detainees. So whilst it can be frustrating for both the individual being detained and us when we cannot provide what they tell us they need, we are also in the fortunate position to provide at least some assistance to those people in Verne IRC who want it. Namely, we can listen, we always listen. We try to absorb the frustration and the anger. We listen when someone tells us that they want to hurt themselves, when they feel there is no point in living.
Many of the individuals we work with cannot find a solicitor at Verne IRC due to unacceptably huge delays in getting an appointment. It is a similar size to Harmondsworth IRC and yet has half the number of slots available. To add to the isolation, it seems as though video link appointments to see a lawyer may be introduced. So not only are you stuck in a remote part of the country, where your family struggle to ever visit, but now you have to explain your life story over a TV monitor.
More recently we have seen a broader demographic at Verne IRC, including many asylum seekers at the end of the road. Many with deportation orders, struggling to get help. What do you do if you get a removal ticket and cannot get to a lawyer in time? I haven’t been given a satisfactory answer to that. People here often beg to be moved to another centre, as they cannot access legal advice easily. Sadly, this is the reality of the Verne.
I have often wondered why the uptake of services at Verne IRC is lower than elsewhere. Do those incarcerated there feel that they are so remote, so invisible, that nobody cares? If I felt that Weymouth was a bleak experience (and I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased), I cannot even imagine how it feels to be locked away, up in the hills of Portland, on the edge of everything.