By Susannah Willcox, Advocacy Coordinator at Detention Action.
Trigger warning: suicide
In August this year, there was public outcry at the proposed introduction of a new Detention Services Order (DSO) on Rule 40 and Rule 42, the two detention centre rules that detail when it is ‘acceptable’ to place people in segregation or solitary confinement within detention. Spelling out guidance to detention centre staff, the DSO made it clear that this sanction could be applied even if medical advice explicitly warned that it would be ‘life-threatening’.
This news may have come as a shock to many but regrettably, segregation has long been a common occurrence across the detention estate (see Medical Justice’s excellent report on this). No more so than at the Verne detention centre in Dorset. The most recent HMIP report on the Verne found that 131 individuals had experienced solitary confinement in the last six months of the report’s writing. Its author, the then HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, lambasted the ‘the high use of separation’, concluding that ‘the separation unit environment was poor and used frequently…and [whilst the average time spent in solitary was 4 days] some detainees were held there for several weeks.’
Separation is clearly a theme when it comes to the Verne. People held there are already trapped in a very particular form of solitary confinement. The Verne is renowned for its stark geographical and social isolation, situated on the island of Portland, at arms-length from the local population of Weymouth, shut off from view in an old prison built by convict labourers in the 19th Century. Individuals detained there are incredibly difficult to reach, evidenced in the shocking statistic that they receive an average of 0.2 visits per month, compared to between one and three visits per month in detention centres elsewhere around the UK.
They are separated from friends, family, solicitors, faith groups, NGOs and other support networks by the prohibitively long and expensive journey it takes to get there. And, unlike Rules 40 and 42, there is no time limit set on this form of segregation.
Their isolation is an indefinite reality.
Of course, those detained in the Verne share many of the same experiences as those held elsewhere around the detention estate – the crushing depression of indefinite detention, the frustration of not being able to speak directly to the Home Office decision-maker in charge of their case, the boredom of life behind bars. But in the Verne, this boredom, depression and frustration is compounded by a very real sense of remoteness.
Detention Action provides support to people detained in the Verne over the phone and through monthly face-to-face workshops. We speak to men whose children rely on them to take them to school, to cook them dinner, to help them with homework and to put them to bed. We speak to men who are the sole carer for a partner with a disability or debilitating mental illness. We speak to men whose children are born while they remain locked up in the Verne. We speak to men still reeling from the shock of being forcefully snatched and detained from their own beds, often in the middle of the night, sometimes in front of their young children. We speak to men who are numb or enraged by years spent ping-ponging around the detention estate, from centre to centre to centre, and then to the Verne. We speak to men who have fled trafficking or persecution and feel they can’t trust anybody, preferring instead to stay enclosed within their room.
Other than centre staff, in most cases the only contact these men have is with others fighting their own demons, making it difficult – if not impossible – for anyone to find the full support they might need. Particularly for those already struggling with poor mental or physical health, the Verne’s premium on isolation can be the proverbial final straw. We speak to men who try to take their own lives as a way out of the madness they find themselves in. We’ve spoken to men who, in some cases, have succeeded in doing so.
It can be deeply distressing to watch the pain caused by the separation of people from their family, friends and communities. One person we support often speaks about his two teenage children who are living with a family friend while he’s in detention. He worries about the same things as any other parent would. Who will help his son with his maths homework? Who will talk to his daughter about the dangers of drug use and unsafe sex? Who will help them to avoid getting caught up in gang culture at a young age, as he had? Another person fears for his safety in the Verne, having already experienced verbal and physical abuse from others in detention because of his sexuality. He talks of feeling a long way from his partner and the supportive LGBTI community he’d become a member of while living in Cardiff.
The children, partners and friends of these men are unable to visit them while they are detained at the Verne, further compounding the stress of their detention and ongoing immigration appeals. In some cases, a lack of visits is even said to weaken a person’s immigration case. It is hard not to be struck by the perverseness of a system that insists on family visits as evidence of strong ties to the UK and then locks people up in far-flung places it knows that their loved ones can never visit.
Such isolation helps no one – not the person detained, nor their friends and relatives, nor the communities they are torn from and, often, thrust back into with little warning. There is a wealth of evidence documenting the devastating impact of segregation on mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and yet detention centres like the Verne continue to operate, far removed even from those who know and care about what is happening.