Image courtesy of Michael Collins
New Freed Voices member, John P.*, was recently released after ten months detained in Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire. For this #Unlocked17 special, he sat down with Detention Action to go through his thoughts on some of the stock phrases the Home Office trot out in response to anti-detention campaigners.
*John P. is not the author’s real name. This has been changed to protect his identity.
The UK is the only country in Europe that practices indefinite detention: from the moment someone enters detention they have no idea how long they will be there for. Immigration statistics released only last week showed one person had been detained 5 years…and counting. These figures came only a few days after the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, had responded to calls for an end to indefinite detention in Parliament with some very (very) familiar lines:
“We do not have indefinite detention in this country. Our policy is that there is always a presumption of liberty. Individuals are detained for no longer than is necessary.”
“For me, the definition of ‘indefinite’ is simple: something with no end. It is infinite. It is the opposite of finite. It is not rocket science. No-one told me how long I’d be there for when I was detained because they couldn’t. They just shrugged: ‘we don’t know.’ Altogether, I have been detained 16 months, three different times. This response from the Immigration Minister just shows you how in denial they are. They are desperately trying to justify a lie. They are literally dancing around the word. It’s actually pretty embarrassing, really. I think they are maybe also just ashamed of what they are doing in detention and that is why they can’t face up to the truth of the situation.”
VULNERABILITY IN DETENTION
In January 2016, the Shaw Review found ‘incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability’. In response, the Government promised to implement a new reform programme (the Adults at Risk procedure) that would ‘safeguard the most vulnerable’. Over the last month, reports from Women for Refugee Women, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Detention Action and the British Medical Association have all outlined how and why the Adults at Risk policy is failing, identifying large numbers of vulnerable people still in detention. In response to each report the Home Office had the same stock response:
“We operate on a presumption against detention, and our adults at risk policy aims to improve our approach to identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. When people are detained this is for the minimum time possible, and the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”
“Everyone knows this is a complete lie…There is no effective screening before or during detention. I suffer from severe depression, for example. The Home Office were well aware of this. Did it factor into their decision to detain me? Not for a second. Their interest in removing you will always outweigh your vulnerability, there is no contest there. I saw loads of vulnerable people inside Morton Hall. Lots of psychotic episodes, people self-harming because they were so depressed. I saw someone cut their throat in front of me. I met a Vietnamese boy in there who had been trafficked to the UK to make cannabis. He never should have been there. I saw physical scars on people’s bodies. You’d walk around and think ‘wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here…wow, I can’t believe he’s in here.’ But really, everyone is vulnerable in detention. From the moment you walk in, you’re changing. You’d see someone come in one week and they would have deteriorated into a different person by the next week.”
DEATHS IN DETENTION
The potentially lethal impact of indefinite detention is well-documented: there have been thirty-three deaths across the detention estate; ten deaths in the last calendar year; four in Morton Hall alone. In response to each (and every) one, the Home Office has had the same stock response:
“As is the case with any death in detention, the police have been informed and a full independent investigation will be conducted by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. We will make no further comment while this is being investigated. The dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”
“That’s absolutely pathetic. It’s insulting, really. I experienced two deaths in the ten months I was in Morton Hall. When the Polish guy died, all they did was put up a tiny notice. When my friend Spencer died, they tried to cover the whole thing up as quickly as possible. It was incredibly traumatic. Especially for those close to him. There were no follow-up questions, no support for the depression we all felt. It was very, very difficult – harder than the sixteen months, to be honest. It was genuinely terrifying to be somewhere where four people had died in the last year. You think that doesn’t affect the people inside? You start thinking when it will be your turn, when am I gonna go? If I have a stroke, can I trust that these guys are really gonna call an ambulance? Or are they just gonna leave me on the floor? It’s terrifying…very, very scary. You start to look at these guards as guys with blood on their hands.”
ABUSE IN DETENTION
In September this year, the BBC Panorama documentary on Brook House highlighted the culture of psychological and physical abuse that has become normalised across the detention estate as a whole. In response to this programme, and other allegations of abuse, the Home Office has provided the same stock response:
“We are clear that all detainees should be treated with dignity and respect and we expect the highest standards from detainee custody officers. We take all allegations of misconduct or mistreatment of detainees seriously.”
“People’s dignity was breached on a daily basis in detention. And the staff there know it. Two guards resigned from Morton Hall in the time I was there. I asked one of them why and he said he couldn’t do it anymore. He said he could not physically bring himself to lock me up at night for nothing. He had some integrity, to be honest, he could see what they doing was wrong. As for taking allegations seriously, you are also strongly discouraged from making any allegations in the first place. They always try and put pressure on you, they tell you your claims are ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘this will affect your case’.
Intimidation tactics are common. I’m not fresh off the boat, so I would tell them to go do one, but many people are too scared to speak out. And I understand why. Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? There would immediately be criminal prosecutions. Immediately, no doubt. But in detention? People have died in detention and not one person has gone to jail, not even suspended! That tells you everything you need to know about how serious they are following up on ‘mistreatment’.”
The classic catch-all response to charges laid at the Home Office detention policy is that – despite the deaths, the crisis of harm, the culture of abuse and the failed measures to protect the vulnerable – detention is necessary, whether we like it or not…
“Detention is an important part of our immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.”
“What?! I’m here aren’t I, talking to you now. Last year, I gave them my passport and told them to put me on a plane. We even discussed extra luggages and flights. But it became clear there was a problem with my country and so instead, they brought me to detention…even though it was clear my removal was not going to happen. Sometimes I think it is just a business, and we are just the stock being moved around. Over half of everyone in detention gets released, not removed. So why is it even called an Immigration Removal Centre? They need to change that name. It’s false advertising. They should change the names to British Guantanamo Bay I, British Guantanamo Bay II, British Guantanamo Bay III…but not IRC.”