At Unlocking Detention, we occasionally receive emails from people, including those who say they are journalists, asking us to let them join the “tour”. These requests stem from misunderstanding: some assume we are organizing physical, guided tours of the inside of these immigration detention centres, while we are actually running a “virtual” tour unearthing facts and voices from these centres.
While their interest is welcome, it also makes us feel uneasy – what legitimizes our gaze inside these centres, when it is not for an official purpose of monitoring or supporting people inside the centres? Should these centres be open for casual inspection by anyone who happens to be curious, knowing that people who are detained there are having a truly devastating time of their lives? When does this gaze transgress into the sphere of voyeurism? What makes us think that we can fully understand immigration detention through seeing its infrastructure?
In this piece, Freed Voices members are our guides to the psycho-geography of detention centres, including Morton Hall which Unlocking Detention is visiting this week. The piece was originally published on Detention Action’s webpage here in 2016, in response to Unlocking Detention. Please do visit the original webpage which contains a full piece with more visual material. *The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.
A few weeks ago, during the fallow days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Freed Voices group met to reflect on a busy twelve months of campaigning and to mark the conclusion of ‘Unlocking Detention’ – Detention Forum’s annual, virtual tour of the UK’s detention estate.
In homage to the latter – (which digitally ‘visited’ those sites of indefinite incarceration up and down the country that the Government would otherwise have you believe are ‘out of sight, out of mind’) – the group conducted their own exercise in ‘mapping detention’.
To begin with, they plotted the general outline of a detention-centre (most Freed Voices members have experienced several different IRCs so chose the detention centre which resonated most). Then they filled in ‘key landmarks’, such as their rooms, healthcare, the canteen, visiting rooms, legal services, the shop, the yard, welfare and/or induction areas.
Next, Freed Voices members detailed the different demographics that might make up any given detention centre – where were the detention centre staff based? Where did new arrivals come in? Where were their friends in relation to their own rooms? Did different national or religious groups congregate in different spaces? Who dominated the yard? What was their typical movement through the detention centre on any given day?
Lastly, they designed a post-it key, with different colours to represent different emotional states. The group then pin-dropped these across their maps in different loci they associated most with that particular feeling.
Feeding back to each other, and reflecting on their respective maps, several outstanding themes emerged.
Firstly, the group acknowledged how they had (at least initially) all interpreted the exercise’s leading direction – ‘to draw the outline of the detention centre’ – very differently. Some members experienced greater freedom of movement throughout their incarceration and could detail the wider physical perimeters of the detention centre in great detail.
Others (despite, in some cases, spending longer periods of time in detention) did not map out anything beyond their wing. As John* explained, “this is really where day-to-day detention happens – everything you need to know about detention is on your wing.”
All agreed, however, that this was equally applicable to their rooms – that the essence of detention boiled down to four brick walls, complete with one or two bunks, maybe a toilet, and more often than not a hermetically sealed window (occasionally with a birds-eye view of a nearby airport).
Boone, who was detained for 7 months in Colnbrook, adjacent to Heathrow, said that ‘every minute and a half a plane flew past the window. Each one reminded me I was going to be deported back to my country. My room was my hell.” Omid said ‘my room was hopeless(ness)…I thought I never ever go out and that’s why in my nightmares I can see this room.” Shariff described his room as ‘My Coffin’.
Second was the extent to which members described how their identities had been unmade, made and remade again whilst they had been detained. Almost all noted how their primary physical/emotional interaction with detention had been under the cloak of darkness, arriving in a blacked-out van, usually at around two or three in the morning, handcuffed, and marched through high-security gates like a criminal.
Joe, a survivor of torture from East Africa, spoke about how, when he arrived at Dover detention centre (where he spent the next two years) he had to pass through its three enormous gates. At the first one, they registered his name and country of origin. At the second, they frisked him. At the third, they gave him a ‘Prison Number’ and waved him through. “I had never committed a crime in my life, I received no trial, and yet I was given a life-sentence?”
John, who was predominately detained in Colnbrook, spoke about being stripped of the most important aspect of his identity: his humanity. He recounted how he had been spoken to like an animal, caged like an animal, and barked at by immigration officers like an animal – and not in a figurative sense, but with an actual guttural canine-growl.
Thiru, a survivor of torture from Sri Lanka, highlighted his time in segregation – or the ‘Isolated Rooms’, as he called them – as the darkest part of his detention experience (a sentiment concurred by several other members). Thiru described how here, in solitary confinement, his past and present traumas had merged into one. He said he felt; “Tortured again. Only this time I wasn’t sure why. Back home, I knew it was because of who I was. But here, it was because of who I wasn’t. It was confusing.”
Freed Voices members largely agreed that the inevitable result of these kinds of experiences – the violence of segregation, the dehumanisation encouraged by staff, the deteriorating sense of self – was an intense distrust in everything around them. On one hand, this was directed at the individuals and systems that compounded their detention: Home Office-picked solicitors, the complaints system, welfare, healthcare staff.
But it also occasionally, tragically, resulted in a self-imposed isolation, either from those going through similar experiences and/or from those with shared national, ethic or cultural backgrounds. Both Omid and Thiru marked out on their maps where people from their home country of origin, Iran and Sri Lanka respectively, tended to congregate in detention. But they also noted how, over time, they had both drifted away from these groups, and in turn, the social links/bonds to their ‘pre-detention identities’. Omid said; “I must be alone in Harmondsworth. After time, everyone the same to me. I see just faces, all the same.”
This dissolving of national identities was not the case for Michael, who has been based in the UK since he was 12, and who spent his two and a half years of detention exclusively in Morton Hall.
His English fluency, English upbringing, and English partner were all a cause of social stigma within detention, where he wasn’t enough of an Other. At the same time, his proposed deportation promised to wipe clean these cultural indicators, erasing any sense of self in one fell swoop: “I grew up in the East End on pie and mash. I supported Chelsea. I went to British school. And now I’m an illegal immigrant about to be deported? I had no idea whether to hold on to who I was in detention, or let it go.”
Michael did note however, that some sense of self was salvaged whenever his partner – someone from outside Morton Hall’s walls – came to visit. Only then was he reminded who he was and what was normal.
This was echoed by other members, who also relied on some kind of external ‘force’ (real or imagined) to help puncture the mind/identity-bending bubble of detention. Boone took great solace in the Colnbrook’s chapel, which he said brought him closer to his family, ‘even though they were thousands of miles away’. Joe’s room at Dover IRC looked out over the sea and he spoke about how, on a clear day, he could see France and that this vague outline of land became a source of calm: “It helped me focus. I remember why I came to the UK in the first place.”
Others reiterated the vitality of visitor-groups, like the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group, Detention Action or the Verne Visitors Group, who provided practical advice and support but also treated them ‘as individuals’. “We weren’t just numbers to them,” reflected Michael.
Lastly (although perhaps unsurprisingly), was the omnipresent black cloud of indefinite detention. Fogging every other aspect of life in detention, the psychological impact of not-knowing when they would be released was the singular, outstanding theme Freed Voices members kept coming back to. ‘Torture’ was repeatedly used to express the horror of endless incarceration.
Freed Voices members were quick to point out that it was almost impossible to delineate and dissect other aspects of life in detention – whether it be the activities available to them or conditions more generally – in separation from indefinite detention. Timelessness infected everything. At one point in the exercise, Thiru covered almost his whole map in post-it notes in an attempt to explain the geographical translation of this pervasive emotional violence. Shariff said that indefinite detention meant that ‘even the smallest details in detention make you lose hope’. Joe spoke about the mental and physical fatigue that comes with bearing this psychological weight everyday: “I felt every second of my detention. I was there more than two years. It was exhausting.”