Morton Hall immigration detention centre is one of the lesser known centres. This blog shares some of the impressions of this particular detention centre which are hard to capture by simply reading monitoring reports. Ali McGinely is Director of AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, and one of the Coordination Group members of the Detention Forum. Eiri Ohtani is Project Director of the Detention Forum. Ali and Eiri have worked closely together over 10 years, initially sharing a small office room together!
By Ali McGinley and Eiri Ohtani
Access to places of detention is limited, either by their isolated location, the barbed wire that surrounds many of them, or by security rules that make visiting seem as though you’re entering a prison. By contrast, if you visit the website of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), you will find a rich source of data on daily life in detention in the very detailed, and in some ways exacting, reports of their inspections of immigration detention centres. Photographs in the reports give us a glimpse of what it looks like inside: they are all pretty disturbing, heightened by that clash of colour schemes only found in institutional settings. Monitoring reports are also produced annually by the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB).
It is rare for any country to have two statutory bodies which monitor immigration detention: often colleagues outside the UK, who face great difficulties obtaining detention related data, envy us for it. While HMIP and IMB’s inspection frameworks and methodologies are different, these official reports, put together, provide a degree of transparency about how Morton Hall is run and what it is like.
For many for whom immigrate detention is an abstract concept, the detention centres might appear indistinguishable from one another. But Morton Hall stands out. For one thing, it is the only remaining centre run by HM Prison Service. The fact that other detention centres are run by private security companies with profit motives rightly attracts much criticism. It is hard to know whether this direct connection to prisons makes any difference to public perceptions of the place. But there are certain differences we do notice: for example, there is more information in the public domain about the costs, and the way in which it is run.
What the reports cannot convey, however, is the sense of isolation that dominates Morton Hall. Located in Lincolnshire, the closest village is Swinderby, with 773 residents. Morton Hall very much ‘feels’ like a prison, both in its infrastructure and the regime followed inside. Of course, all detention centres feel like prisons inside – there is no doubt about that. But Morton Hall – like Dover and the Verne which have since closed down – actually look like prisons from outside too. You can see this as you approach the centre from far away, unlike the purpose-built centres beside the airports in the south. In fact, it was an RAF base, until 1985 when it became a prison, and an IRC in 2011.
The isolation is exacerbated by the limited visiting hours, often less than three hours a day. It is good to see that this isolation is recognised and attempts made to reduce it by providing a free taxi service to and from Lincoln and Newark rail stations, although you have to book it 24 hours in advance. Needless to say, individuals’ experiences of Morton Hall are also hard to capture in these reports, but we have collected vivid testimonies of Morton Hall which might help to increase people’s understanding of the place.
Inside Morton Hall, all the rooms other than the induction wing are single rooms, whereas most other centres are shared rooms. Morton Hall is the only detention centre to outsource its welfare provision, which is run by Lincolnshire Action Trust. Previously, this welfare service, along with provision for visits and the visits hall, had been delivered by a local organisation called Children’s Links.
‘Off the radar’
There is often speculation that Morton Hall is used as a ‘testing ground’ for pilot projects, because of its physical distance from the other centres, and because it is the only centre that is publicly run. These pilots have included screening for people with a learning disability, or trying out new approaches to monitoring those at risk of self-harm (ACDT).
There is also speculation, commonly discussed but with no concrete evidence that we are aware of, that people deemed ‘problematic’ in the widest sense – whether for health reasons, behaviour, or perhaps complex cases – are sent to Morton Hall.
Morton Hall’s isolation has always meant that it feels much more ‘off the radar’ in so many different ways. The sense of being ‘off the radar’ can be physically experienced when you visit. AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, have been working to support people in Morton Hall since it opened. AVID visited Morton Hall when it was still a women’s prison, during its conversion to a detention centre. Ali McGinley, Director of AVID, says that she was shocked to see the physical security dramatically increase during that time. “…there are a lot of external grounds and garden space at Morton Hall, and this was all sectioned off with high fences so that in case of disruption, areas can be ‘sealed’ for safety. This means that more barbed wire was put up at Morton Hall when it became a detention centre, than there had ever been when it was a women’s prison.”
AVID member Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, based in Nottingham and with a branch in Lincoln, are a lively, dynamic group of volunteers who provide befriending, support and practical advice to people inside. AVID has been contacted by people from Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester or even further to ask about the centre and what they can do to help those locked up there.
What is the future for Morton Hall?
The visitors group members usually have to drive. Despite the free taxi service, if you are relying on public transport it is very difficult to get to. It can feel very dark as you the drive up a long path surrounded by trees. (You can see for yourself on Googlemap’s Street View of the area). There are far fewer charitable groups going in and out of Morton Hall, unlike say the centres around London, which makes the support of the visitors’ group and others such as BID, who also make the journey there, particularly important.
Unlike the south east centres and those near airports, there is far less media interest, or at least far less national media coverage. Often major events at Morton Hall go very much unnoticed, unless someone tragically dies at the centre or when serious disturbances occur. But, although it does not have a public ‘profile’ such as Yarl’s Wood or, lately, Brook House, people have not forgotten about Morton Hall. There are frequent demonstrations outside Morton Hall, such as the one organised recently by groups various groups. A local newspaper regularly reports on these demonstrations, bringing much needed public attention to the plight of men who are locked indefinitely at Morton Hall.
Morton Hall remains pretty unique within the UK’s detention system. Publicly run, geographically detached from the rest of the system, and physically isolated. Since the closures of Haslar, the Verne and Dover detention centres, it is the last detention centre to be run by the Prison Service. Which prompts the question: what is the future for Morton Hall?