By Ben du Preez of Detention Action. This piece was originally published on the Border Criminologies blog on 19 October.
Guest post by Ben du Preez, Campaigner at Detention Action, where he helps coordinate the Freed Voices group – a group of experts-by-experience dedicated to speaking out about the realities of detention in the UK. As a member of the Detention Forum, he also co-runs ‘Unlocking Detention’ – a virtual tour of the detention estate – with Right to Remain.
There is a scene in ‘Invisible‘ – a new virtual reality (VR) film about indefinite detention in the UK – in which John, a member of the Freed Voices group, reflects on how the suffocating bureaucracy of detention can feel like a physical barrier to release in and of itself: ‘To me it is like a living hell…it’s like climbing a mountain. Looking at all the forms and procedure you have to go through, it is heart breaking. And when you are in prison you are counting your days down, but in detention you are counting them up and up.’
The visuals that accompany these words place the viewer within what appears to be a small, stark detention cell, facing an open, heavy-set door. As John speaks, a slow smattering of documents – Section 4 applications, monthly reports, Medical Legal Reports, Reasons for Refusal letters, Judicial Reviews, Rule 35s, caseworker correspondence, court summaries, Article 8 applications, Exceptional Legal funding applications, Chief Immigration Officer Bail applications, removal directions (and more) – start to flood the room. First they plaster the walls and then they begin to collect by the base of the door. There, they mount…and mount…and mount – just like the days in detention, ‘up and up‘ – until the ‘way out’ is completely submerged in paper and it feels like you can’t breathe but for Home Office letterheads.
It is one of many powerful scenes in ‘Invisible‘ – produced by VR City Films – that does not try to represent the literal lived reality of indefinite detention, but rather seeks to create sensorial re-imaginings of it. To a certain extent this (like all attempts to raise awareness of, and campaign against, the use of detention in the UK) is dictated by the particular political and physical markers that characterise immigration detention in this country – namely, its two ‘great unknowns’.
Firstly, there is the ‘not-knowing’ that comes with the UK’s singular lack of a time limit on detention. As Darren Emerson, the film’s director, has noted, this ‘seemed to permeate‘ the reflections and testimony of contributing Freed Voices members. The devastating long-term, and occasionally lethal, psychological affect of indefinite detention has been extensively documented in medical journals, academic studies, policy briefs and NGO reports. But effectively communicating the truly mind-bending impact of this experience can be difficult – emotionally, for those who are experiencing or have experienced the trauma first-hand, but also linguistically. Only a few months ago during a Freed Voices session, I thought of Primo Levi, and his call for the need for a new language in order to adequately describe his experiences of the Lager, when a member of the group said; ‘I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it [indefinite detention]. My words aren’t right.’ Similarly, no singular photograph can translate this mental agony. No conventional news piece can fully express its creeping but ultimately transformative affect.
Secondly, detention in the UK is defined by its inaccessibility. Hidden behind 20ft prison walls and reams of barbed wire, detention centres have long been our immigration system’s black-sites. Not only are the general public kept at arm’s length, but all shades of documentarians are denied entry. This kind of ‘not knowing’ naturally encourages a lack of transparency, severely hampers accountability and actively invites distrust of the detention system at large. But it also means that those who might not have ever been to, or visited someone in, detention (our Prime Minister included) do not have an understanding of what these sites of trauma might look, smell, sound or feel like.
Both forms of ‘not knowing’ – one mental, from the inside-out; the other physical, from the outside-in – mean that challenging the use of detention in the UK necessarily demands a degree of creativity. If you are committed to effectively engaging people in this issue, you have to find different, innovative ways in…over the prison walls and through the locked iron doors.
In another unforgettable scene in ‘Invisible‘, the VR-headset wearer finds themselves in a different cell, with the sound of dial tone ringing through. The call is answered by ‘Ray’, recorded speaking from his actual room in Harmondsworth detention centre. As he begins to describe how detention has melted his identity – ‘when you strip someone of their rights to freedom, rights to family, rights to expression…then you’re made to feel not human anymore’ – the ceiling above starts to disintegrate. Streams of blue light pierce through until this porousness finally gives way and the viewer is left floating in some ghostly underwater gloom, surrounded by the faint outline of other ‘hanging’ bodies around you. The beat of Ray’s words reverberate in the form of a lost, ephemeral, heart. (You can watch the team at VR City dissect how they produced this particular shot in their Behind the Scenes trailer from 2.43minutes onwards).
It is a scene which perfectly encapsulates the inventiveness needed to skirt the impossibility of entering Harmondsworth and to fully translate the otherworldliness of ‘Ray’s predicament, and the weight of his words. It also alludes to why the film is entitled ‘Invisible‘. As Emerson explains, its producers ‘were keen that the film focused on issues of identity because detention strips people of their sense of self’, rendering them ‘unseen even to themselves‘, and ‘on the other hand, there is the invisibility of the detention estate.’
Attacking this invisibility is the central premise of the Detention Forum‘s ‘Unlocking Detention‘ social media project, another example of how addressing detention naturally encourages unorthodox campaigning. Right now, #Unlocked16 – the third iteration of this annual, ‘virtual’ tour of the UK’s detention estate – is ‘visiting’ every site of immigration detention in the UK (this week you’ll find us ‘at’ the Verne). Through a daily stitch of tweets, photos, blogs and commentary, we shine a spotlight on those black-sites the government would otherwise have the general public believe are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Again, there is a premium on ‘thinking outside of the box’, finding a different route in: every week we conduct a live Twitter Q&A with someone in detention, whilst previous tours have included experts-by-experience penning letters to their previous captors, mapping the psycho-geography of their detention, and interviewing loved-ones about the impact of detention on their own relationships.
This year’s theme – ‘Friends and Family’ – focuses on the often tragic, life-changing effect detention can have on one’s immediate ‘inner circle’, and the close, personal relations that bind us and make us who we are. These wider ripples of indefinite detention are consistently unreported, or ‘made invisible’, and in order to challenge that, #Unlocked16 is asking people – again, inside and outside detention – to draw their answer to the question, ‘What does detention mean to you?‘ Only one week into a two month tour (which ends on International Migrants Day, 18th December) and we’ve already received over a hundred drawings. This is just one example of how ‘Unlocking Detention’ has become a creative platform for mobile solidarity; a space where ideas, resources, outrage, dialogue, support and action flow across, and connect, those who, regrettably, might know everything there is to know about detention and those who, for many different reasons, might not know enough (for another example see here).
Importantly, ‘Invisible‘ also ends championing this solidarity, removing the distance between those detained and the communities they were taken from and into which they will be released. Straight from a scene of public demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood, the viewer finds themselves on the streets of Middlesbrough. Standing defiantly in front of us (and his own front door) is long-time Freed Voices member, Abdal, who has collectively lost over four years of his life to detention. His physical appearance (and his bold stance) are an active challenge to the film’s own title and his words undermine any Home Office hope that those in, or post-detention, will go quietly into the night. ‘We lost our families, our children, our selves…But will I sit here and cry about it? No. We still have guts and we still have heart. I’m gonna pick myself up. I’m gonna stand. And I’m gonna fight.’