Week 3 of #Unlocked16: Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 3 of Unlocking Detention was all about Brook and Tinsley Houses. Together they make up the Gatwick site of detention, situated roughly 200 metres from the main runway at Gatwick Airport.
Brook House was opened in 2009 and is built to the standards of a Category B prison.  One year after opening,  the independent inspectorate that reports on the treatment and conditions for those in prison and other types of custody in England and Wales (HMIP) branded it “unsafe”and said, “Brook House was significantly compounded by poor design, which built in boredom”.
Tinsley House was opened in May 1996, the first ever purpose-built detention centre in the UK.  It’s the smallest detention centre in the UK, although there is sizeable expansion of an extra 100 bed spaces planned at Brook/Tinsley Houses.

We held another live Q and A this week – this week the interview was with Jon detained in Brook House.  Jon has been detained there for 18 months and counting. 
As Scottish Detainee Visitors said, these interviews offer “vivid insights into life in detention. They’re invaluable.”
Read the interview here

Blog posts and articles

It’s been a bumper week of Unlocked blog posts and articles!
First up, we had an incredible piece by Ajay.  This year, Unlocking Detention is particularly focusing on the impact of detention on an individual’s immediate social circle – their friends and family.  This piece by Ajay is the first of several on this theme from members of the Freed Voices group.
When he was asked how detention had impacted those around him Ajay said that ‘there was no one around me. There was only me…or who I used to be, anyway.’ And so, for this article, Ajay penned a letter to his former self – the one he knew before he was detained in Brook House detention centre.
Read Ajay’s letter here

Next up was a personal and engaging piece by James Wilson, director of  Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who wrote about the hidden, human reality of indefinite detention.

Read James’ blog post here
We also heard from Lisa from Right to Remain, on the reaction of incredulity, anger and bewilderment when the public find out about immigration detention at the Unlocking Detention awareness-raising sessions she’s been running across the country.
Read Lisa’s blog here
Ravi Naik, Public and International Law Solicitor and Head of Public Law at ITN Solicitors, wrote as part of Unlocking Detention for our friends at Justice Gap – on the Home Office’s unlawful use of immigration curfews after release from detention.  Read “Released but not yet free” here.
Ravi also wrote a short piece explaining the legal situation and what people should do if they are given an immigration curfew on the Unlocked blog here. The post highlights how communicating immigration detention is not solely about abstract policy issues, but can also raise awareness of legal rights that those affected might otherwise be unaware of.

Also this week, Detention Forum members UKLGIG released the report they have co-written with  Stonewall, on the treatement of LGBT asylum-seekers in detention.  Read “No Safe Refuge” here.

Live Q and A with Jon, detained in Brook House

This week Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ Brook and Tinsley Houses, respectively. Together they make up the Gatwick site of detention, situated roughly 200 metres from the main runway at Gatwick Airport. On Friday afternoon, Ben from Detention Action conducted a live Twitter Q&A with Jon, whose detention in Brook House stood at 18 months and counting…

To kick off, a huge shout-out to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group (GDWG), who support individuals detained in Brook and Tinsley House:

The first question came from Sam Grant, Campaigns Manager at Rene Cassin:

Another question from Scottish Detainee Visitors illuminated the central theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour: the impact of detention on those immediate relationships that shape who we are – family and loved ones.

Next we had a series of questions on the vitality of visitor-groups:

Always nice to see people following #Unlocked16 (and the live Q&As in particular) from afar…

This week also featured several questions about the physical and sensorial reality of detention – what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, how it feels

Towards the end of the Q&A, questions turned to the political reality that frames detention in the UK, and how Jon and others within detention think it should change:

And to close proceedings, Jon spoke out about the links between Britain’s historical legacy of oppression and the routine indefinite detention of migrants today:

The hidden, human reality of indefinite detention

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

By James Wilson,  director of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

Imagine being in prison but not held for a crime, counting up the days since you were detained but never able to count down to release, probably entitled only to 30 minutes of free legal advice which will conclude with the solicitor telling you that there is nothing they can do.  In the UK. In 2016.

Coming home

I started work at Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) four months ago and in some ways it felt like coming home.  I’d worked in London for the past ten years – and still live there – but I grew up in a village in the lush Mid Sussex countryside about eight miles from Gatwick.  Many of my and my wife’s families live across Sussex.  I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers throughout my career, but working in Crawley has opened up conversations about my work with extended family and friends locally. They may not have been necessarily greatly sympathetic to detainees, but more commonly still haven’t known the detention centres at Gatwick were even there – why would you?  My dad retired after 40 years running his own freight business at Gatwick at the same time I was starting work across town; he knows the airport like the back of his hand but didn’t know about the centres.

There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this, but I’d much prefer that we didn’t have to do it at all.

Incongruously, a few days before I was interviewed by GDWG, I went on an escape-from-a-locked-room experience organised for my brother’s birthday.  For those who have not heard of these yet, stay tuned…I believe they are proliferating around the UK at a rate of knots; any premises not already a branch of a coffee chain will be considered for a locked room experience.  The basic idea is straightforward: you and your group are trapped in a room and have to work together to escape from it.  Each room comes with its own scenario (a scientist has been kidnapped, a treasure map has been hidden) and a series of clues leads round the room until you eventually uncover some keys or another means of escape.  Reassuringly there is  always access to escape if you wish and a clock counting down until the time of eventual release if your ingenuity and team work has failed you.

Not all locked rooms have these soothing features.

A hidden reality

The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for immigration purposes. The detention centres are called ‘immigration removal centres (IRCs)’ but only 50% of those detained leave the UK on eventual ‘release’; the other half are released back to the UK, surely raising questions about the purpose of the IRCs regardless of one’s politics.  While the average stay in IRCs may be relatively short, detainees being held for months is common, and being held for years not rare enough.  I have met someone held for over five years; the team at GDWG once met a detainee who had been held for nine years.

It seems unlikely that we as a country would tolerate the indefinite detention of any other group of people.  Yet the human reality of indefinite detention seems to be hidden. As it isn’t a new development it doesn’t automatically announce itself as newsworthy.  Detention is little-known about and even less  understood amongst the public, and anyone trying to publicise the issue faces well-known challenges in terms of perceived public views of asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants.

On the doorstep of the airport

Two of the UK’s current nine IRCs are at Gatwick Airport, and Brook House and Tinsley House are ‘at the airport’ in a very literal way.  I had visited other detention centres before, but the first thing that struck me about Brook and Tinsley was their sheer proximity to the runway. Detainees calling our office for assistance sometimes can’t hear us because of the noise of a plane taking off.

At a deeper level the near-constant sound of aircraft must be a reminder of the looming threat of removal to a country where the detainee may face torture, persecution, poverty, and/or alienation.  From another perspective, Gatwick handled over 40 million passengers in 2015, which means an average of over 100,000 people sweep a few hundred yards past the centres every day, the vast majority unaware of the IRCs’ existence.

Tinsley House opened in 1996 as the first purpose-built IRC; Brook House, built to category B prison specifications, opened in 2009. 100 additional beds are currently being added to Tinsley and Brook, meaning the detainee population across the two centres will likely be approaching 700 by the start of 2017.  With the imminent closure of the Cedars pre-departure removal centre, Tinsley House will soon also see families sometimes detained there in the days before their removal from the UK.
Indefinite detention challenges us to decide what actions to take.

GDWG’s response

At GDWG we respond in several main ways. Firstly – the starting point and the heart of our work – we visit individual detainees.  We aim to be able to offer a volunteer visitor to every Gatwick detainee who asks for one.  The volunteer will visit the detainee once a week, offering a connection with the outside world, a listening ear, some practical support, and emotional support.

Secondly, we provide practical support – phone cards, second-hand clothing – and some casework, referring detainees on to solicitors and other agencies for specialist help where this is possible.
Thirdly, we stand (and walk) with detainees and try to make their voices heard.  For the past two years, our Refugee Tales project has walked across Kent, Sussex and London for a week during the summer, inviting ex-detainees to join us and pairing people with first-hand experience of the asylum and detention systems with established writers so that untold stories can be told.  Fourthly, we work through Detention Forum and with other organisations to campaign for a 28-day limit to immigration detention and for fewer people to be detained in the first place.  This work includes recognising the need to make practical suggestions to the government on alternatives to detention, hence supporting Detention Action’s work around this.  We also work to raise awareness of and challenge myths around detainees, refugees and asylum seekers, including running sessions in schools.

Common humanity

Cutting across all work on indefinite detention and the conditions within IRCs, I think, is the urgent need to re-humanize individuals who’ve had their individuality taken away, feeling lost and forgotten within our detention system.   Detainees are not just numbers, or ‘migrants’, or ‘refugees and asylum seekers’.

The detainee about to be removed to the country he left as a child and that he cannot remember; the detainee who would die rather than return to the horrors of their country of origin; the detainee who can’t afford to call their family or is (as with somebody I spoke to the other day) too ashamed of their current situation to have UK-based family visit them in detention.

It can be too easy to be divided by politics and labels, but by befriending our detainees and telling their stories we can recognise, and hope to help others to recognise, our common humanity.

A Letter to The Old Me, Before Brook House

Morton Hall | Unlocked19

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

Content warning: suicide

This year, Unlocking Detention is particularly focusing on the impact of detention on an individual’s immediate social circle – their friends and family.  This piece by Ajay is the first of several on this theme from members of the Freed Voices group.

When he was asked how detention had impacted those around him Ajay said that ‘there was no one around me. There was only me…or who I used to be, anyway.’ And so, for this article, Ajay penned a letter to his former self – the one he knew before he was detained in Brook House detention centre.

Dear My Pre-Detention Self,

It’s been such a long time! I haven’t seen you for almost a year! I feel like I don’t know you anymore! Where the hell have you gone?! Where have you been hiding?! Why do you not get in touch? I thought there was no secret between You and Me. Are you ok? Is everything still good with you? Are you still hopeful? Are you still on your way to achieving your goals? I hope that everything worked out as planned.

I remember the last time I saw you was at Alex’s birthday, at the Queen’s Head. You were so talkative, making fun of everything. You wouldn’t let the conversation drop for a second. Are you still like that? Do you still want to be a computer engineer? I remember you were in the middle of your studies the last time we were together. I remember your friends asking you whether you were ever going to grow up – you seemed so happy to be in the present moment! I remember you smiling a lot…and enjoying the odd lager (or two!) as well. Are you still playing football with your friends every Monday? Do people still call you the ‘Nepalese Maradona’? Is your hair still like a chicken? Are you still wearing those Nikes you loved? Have you still got the stud earring you used to show off all the time?

I have to admit, I had to collect ALL my strength to write this letter. I am writing it in difficult circumstances. It’s not quite how it used to be for me. Laughing in the pub feels a long, long way away. I wish we could go back there, and be together again – You and Me.

I’ve just come out of detention. I was detained for about three months. Most of the time in a place called Brook House. It’s too much for me to explain everything about what happened to me there in this letter. But it is an experiences you would never want to even dream off. I hope you never go through something like that.

Do you remember when Me, You and Ram got locked inside Ram’s flat that time? Well, imagine that but for three months. Only without each other to chat to. And without the food we wanted to eat. And without sunlight coming in. And without the sofa or the bed. And without peace of mind the door would open at some point and we’d go outside. Imagine that we were also surrounded by other people who look like they’re experiencing the end of the world – some people are screaming, some people are silent with fear, some people are crying. Some people try to kill themselves in front of you. Imagine one night a stranger in uniform comes in and drags Ram out the door. And you don’t know where he’s gone or if he’s ok. And the lock on the door turns again. And its shutdown.

Well, this has been something like my reality over the last few months.
When I came out of detention I had nowhere to go. I was nearly homeless. I had no-one to talk to. I had no-one to go to the pub with (and also no money to buy anything). I had no-one to play football with. I really missed you then. It would have been good just to see you around. Even just to sit together and have a small chat. Even to sit together in silence.

I think detention changed me a lot to be honest. I wonder if you’d even recognise me now if we saw eachother. You’d probably think I was a different person. I wish we could get back together and hangout. I wish we could get back the old vibe we had, back then.

I miss you. Do you think I’ll ever see you again?

Wishing you all the best my friend,
Post-Detention Me

Unlocking Detention visits Brook House

Last week, it was Brook House detention centre’s turn to be ‘visited’ by Unlocking Detention.

We had some brilliant articles published during Brook House week.  There was a really interesting piece published by our partners The Justice Gap, on the politics of space and time, looking at the Refugee Tales walk along the Pilgrim’s Way, which involved people who had experienced detention first-hand.

This article lead to a discussion on Twitter about making the ‘invisible spaces’ of detention visible, a key aim of the Unlocking Detention project.  Jenny Edkins, Professor of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, made the connection between Unlocking Detention and the work of Tings Chak.  You can read more about Tings’ publication ‘Undocumented: the architecture of migrant detention’ here.

During Brook House week, the Immigration Bill 2015 got its second reading in the House of Commons.  Read about what the Bill means for immigration detention, and what happens next, in this piece by Jon Featonby, parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council and parliamentary lead for the Detention Forum.

We heard from Yann, detained in Brook House for 4 months and detained for a year and half overall.

Also last week, Bristol Immigration Detention Campaign released their fantastic Keys to Freedom video in support of Unlocking Detention.  Take a look!

On Friday, we ended the week with our now traditional Q and A with someone detained in the IRC that is the focus of the week’s ‘tour’.  This week, Ray answered your questions.  Ray is currently detained in Brook House.

Catch up on all the questions put to Ray, and his illuminating responses, here.

Some thanks are due:  Thank you to Ray for providing such valuable insight into life in detention, thank you for all your questions, thanks for Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group for putting us in touch with Ray, and a special thanks to Ben from Detention Action for interviewing Ray.

We also continued to get some amazing contributions to our Unlocked15 theme – What would you miss if you were detained? (Or for those who actually have been detained, what did you miss?).  Remember you can still share yours on Twitter, using the hashtag #Unlocked15.

https://twitter.com/EiriOhtani/status/654640007358095360

And finally, there was big detention news last week, not related to Brook House.

This is great news, and we hope more will follow.  No reason has been given for the closure at this point, but we like to think that the Unlocking Detention visit to Dover the week before the news broke was the final nail in the coffin!

My four months in Brook House: I did all I could not to let it destroy me

Image courtesy of Freed Voices

This piece was written for Unlocking Detention by Yann, a member of the Freed Voices group.

Freed Voices are a group of experts-by-experience who are dedicated to speaking out about the realities of detention in the UK and campaigning for detention reform.

It was originally published by the Justice Gap, an online magazine about the law and justice, who are partnering with the Detention Forum to host #Unlocked15 articles.

I was picked up by immigration from my house at 7pm on a Thursday. I had no idea they were coming. I thought they were police trying to find out if I’d seen a crime in the local area. Even when they said they were there for me, I wasn’t worried. I thought I’d be off for a few days, answer a few questions, then come back home. I ended up staying the night in a police cell. When I woke up the next morning, an immigration officer came and told me I was going to Brook House.

I had never heard of detention before, let alone Brook House. The officer tried to calm me saying: ‘There’s nothing to worry about. You can play football over there mate, you’ll be fine.’

The van came to pick me up in the evening. At first, I was the only person in there. But over the next three hours it filled up. Soon, there were six of us. Four of them were being taken to Dover IRC, and two of us to Brook House. We drove all the way down to Dover first. We arrived around midnight. It was dark and blurry looking through the window but I could still make out what looked like a huge old prison with a massive gate. The guards outside looked enormous – the size of three people on top of each other. I was terrified. I had no idea whatsoever we were being taken anywhere like that. As the van pulled away, I tried to remain focused and stay calm. I kept my head down.

We arrived at Brook House at 3am.

The entrance was not as bad as Dover. The surroundings were a bit less aggressive. By that point I was tired and hungry. I barely took in what was around me, I was exhausted. My fingerprints and photo were taken and I was quickly seen by a nurse. They took me to the compound where the rooms were and I thought to myself: ‘This all looks familiar.’ I’d seen this kind of set-up in American prison films. Everything about the way it looked, the way it smelt, the way it felt – it was a jail. Eventually, they took me to my cell. There was another person in there. I was shocked, I couldn’t believe how small it was. They gave me a phone and I immediately called friends and family to let them know where I was. I went to sleep that night at 5am.

As soon as I woke up I wanted to find out what my rights were and why I was here. I wanted to know when I was going to be released and if I could get bail. It was difficult because these legal issues are not my domain. There was no advice, no assistance. Even the welfare officer apologised that he could not give me more information. I started to speak to people who had been in Brook House for over a year. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that there was no time-limit on detention and I had no idea people could be held for that long. But I was still optimistic, I was determined not to be in there that long.

Brook House runs like a prison. They open the cell at 8am and then close it at 11.30am. They open it again at 12pm for lunch. Shut again at 4.30pm. Open again at 5pm for dinner and then close at 8.30pm till the following morning.

There is a window in your cell but you can’t open it. Over the period I was at Brook House I had a huge drop in my Vitamin D because there was no access to light. I got no fresh air. I felt suffocated.

When I was not in my cell I spent every moment I could doing research on how best to get out of detention. Brook House has a list of solicitors provided and chosen by the Home Office. If you had a private solicitor or a legal aid solicitor from a firm they hadn’t chosen they would make it difficult for you to see them. This is what happened to me and in the end I was forced to represent myself.

That actually became the main thing that got me through Brook House. I would go to the library and IT room every day to work on my case. It helped me focus when everything else around me was falling apart. I was determined not to become one of those people who are destroyed in detention. And there are many people like that. You would see them walking around talking to themselves. Some of them cut their wrists. Some of them try to commit suicide they are so desperate.

I missed my family a lot when I was in Brook House. At the beginning I spoke to them over the phone but I felt too mentally fragile to have them come and visit me. I didn’t want them to see me in that position. I felt vulnerable. I knew they would feel my pain and that felt like a double punishment. My family was emotionally impacted by my detention. They were really concerned about me. It also affected my social life. I struggled to keep up relationships with some of my friends when I was in detention. My support structure fell away. That left me feeling even more isolated.

I started to speak to the other people in detention. Everyone agreed we had to do something and I started to represent our collective voice. I complained about the lock-up hours and explained why I thought they were wrong. We had a meeting with the staff at Brook House in the morning and by the evening, I had been taken to solitary – the prison within a prison. You are locked up 23 hours in a cell with nothing other than your mattress. Two nights later they transferred me to Morton Hall and I was there for another year before I was transferred onto Colnbrook, and then Harmondsworth.

Altogether, I was detained for over a year and a half before I was released back into the community. Really, I should not have been in Brook House for more than 28 days, maximum. This is the outer limit. It is time the Home Office complied with their own policy; that detention should only be used as a last resort, and when removal is imminent. There are no excuses left for them.

Brook House week…

12 to 18 Oct – the Unlocking Detention team looks back on the week they visited Brook House detention centre, near Gatwick Airport.

Unlocking Detention visited Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, near Gatwick Airport.  This centre and another one nearby called Tinsley House, are visited and supported by our member, Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group.  They are also a member of our Indefinite Detention Working Group calling for a time limit on detention – well, you can tell that from their tweet, can’t you…

Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group’s report on mental health impact of immigration detention was very useful when navigating this week’s tour.

Thank you!

This was our third week and we were slowly getting used to being a “tour guide”.  The golden rule of the tour = use photos as often as possible.  Many of us are now too used to those imagines of detention centres and forget that that’s not necessarily the case for others.  We do need to take communicating detention more seriously and use more imaginative methods.

Brook House, like Colnbrook detention centre, is built to a Category B prison standard.  One person commented on the above photo that this looks like an IKEA prison.  Our impression is that it was never that bright inside…

We were also getting used to reading both the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) and the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reports to find tweet-worthy material.  They are really a great source of information about the inner workings of the detention centres, and although it takes time (and many sections, after a while, read quite repetitive), we recommend you read one or two reports in full to get a real sense of what these reports convey.  By the way, we are increasingly fascinated by the different approaches and tones employed by IMBs.  At the end of the tour, we can probably write a book about it.

While these monitoring reports are important, it is personal testimonies, people’s accounts of immigration detention that make these numbers, statistics and descriptions come alive.  We were fortunate to be able to ask H, a young man who was detained in Brook House, to write a blog for our collaborative project with openDemocracy.  Each individual expresses their experience of immigration differently and uniquely, and that uniqueness of voice is also evident in H’s piece.  We are extremely grateful to an anonymous member organisation who facilitated this work and ensured that H was able to share his experience of detention in a safe and supported manner.  You can read H’s piece here.

We were moved by the comment under H’s piece, ‘Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre’, someone sharing their own experience of losing their foster son to Brook House.  It said:

‘Years ago we visited Brook House to see someone we love. The visits proved traumatic and heart rending , we will never forget these experiences and our shock at finding ourselves and our foster son in such a dire and powerless situation. The sound of the planes flying above us were a constant reminder of the imminent loss and feeling of hopelessness. It is a place untouched by humanity or the need toshow respect to fellow human beings. Human rights do not exist. Many of the young people arrived in this country as children looking for safety, at the age of 18 they are deemed adults , ready to return to their previous broken lives with no support or consideration as to how they will survive. Most are treated as criminals (they become illegal!) and the ‘foster’ families that have nurtured and love them are ridiculed by the immigration service for continuing to care. The system abuses those who have suffered abuse and trauma, these youngsters have experienced war, seen death first hand and have been exposed to horrors we can only imagine. We just want a good life for the boys we have welcomed into our lives, we are proud of them and pray that all will be well and there will be no more visits to Brook House for us.’

Another strength of Unlocking Detention is that we are in touch with people who know things about detention that other people simply don’t know about.  So a blog piece about a visit to the Brook House isolation units provided an interesting alternative piece about the very physical space that has been such a controversial issue in that particular detention centre (Brook House has been repeatedly criticised for its excessive use of isolation).

Now our selfies.  We were never sure our selfie campaign would attract attention.  Unlocking Detention team did have a long debate about this and to be frank, the team was somewhat skeptical.  But it seems to be working and we are getting many selfies now.  Here’s one from our member organisation, Migrants’ Rights Network.

Getting such a lovely selfie from Don at MRN made us happy.  But selfies sent to us by organisations and groups that we do not know very well have been making us EXTREMELY happy.  This one is by DOST (@DostCentre).

These selfies make us realise that the impact of detention if felt outside the gates of the detention centres.  How can we tap into these groups’ willingness to stand up against it into action that does change and eventually end immigration detention?  It is a million dollar question.  In the meantime, we hope that our selfie cards make it easier for many other individuals and organisations to voice their concerns and challenge immigration detention.

We really want you to join in the campaign, so here’s more info on how to send us your selfies.

One of the reasons for doing Unlocking Detention is to ensure that the Detention Inquiry continues to attract interests from others and also that the inquiry panel understands how strongly many of us feel that immigration detention is unacceptable.  We hope to tweet more about the Detention Inquiry during the tour, and thank you to CSEL for sharing their tweet with the hashtag, #unlocked.

We were also able to make friends over Twitter and through our work to help the Detention Inquiry.  One such organisation is Regional Asylum Activism North West, who wrote for us their experience of collecting evidence for the Detention Inquiry in Manchester and Liverpool. You can read their blog here.  We would like to thank them for contributing to our tour but also engaging other local groups to work together on these important topic.

We hope you can see from the above that it was a rather busy week!
By Unlocking Detention team

Flip flops placed neatly outside isolation unit doors

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

The writer visited one of the wings of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre a few years ago.  This is an edited version of his diary. 

Several months previously, I was part of a small group of people who were given a tour inside one of the high-security immigration detention centres.  Towards the end of the tour, we were led into the isolation units.  This is where, well, people are isolated from the rest of the ‘detainees’.  I won’t go into the technicalities of “isolation”, the statutory rules that stipulate how isolation can be authorised or why I was there in the first place because they are not relevant here.  People who are more interested in policy matters are encouraged to read multitude of rules and regulations which legitimise and normalise immigration detention.

I digress.

The wing we walked into was very quiet, so quiet that we could hear the strong wind that seeped incessantly through gaps between the several thick metal doors behind us and the floor.  In fact, a short corridor where about 10 cells were located, with 4 or 5 of them on each side, felt like a wind tunnel.  Outside each cell, there was a well-used, small whiteboard which presumably carries information about the people inside the cell.  Some cells seemed occupied though there was no information on the whiteboard outside, not even names.

Through an open door, we silently watched two security guards checking on the person inside.  I could only see the man’s back, and, frankly, I was glad of it.  It felt violating to intrude like this.  I didn’t know if he wanted us to witness his isolation – although I was pretty sure that he did not realise that we were there.  One guard was talking to him quietly inside, while the other guard was looking downwards, maybe at the floor, as if he didn’t know what to do with himself.  Just outside this open door were a pair of worn flip flops, which must have been light green when brand new, placed neatly next to each other.  They were greying around the edges quite badly.

A sight of the flip flops just suddenly brought me back to where I grew up, to the part of the world where we take our shoes off to go into any private living space or sacred space.  We are told, from when we are small, to make sure to place our shoes neatly when we take them off – the practice that I generally no longer care about.  Nowadays my shoes are scattered randomly and haphazardly on the floor near the front door of my flat, tripping me every time I am leaving the flat in a hurry – but I do slip back into my old habit when I am in the presence of my family members.

This man must have come from the part of the world that I am originally from – and I do not mean the country or the city, just that general other parts of the world, outside Europe, where most of the people in detention are from.  I also imagined the man’s bare, exposed feet in those flip flops, which seemed incongruous to the hard environment of metal doors and concrete floors of the detention centre.

Immigration detention distorts the humanity of those who get entangled in this state mechanism.  People held in detention are reduced to the worn flip flops placed neatly outside their isolation unit doors.  They turn into mute figures whose uncommunicative, downcast eyes met ours surreptitiously as they were ushered from one locked door to another, always followed by the sound of clanking keys hanging from the private security company employee’s waists.

Maybe the distortion also affects the humanity of those who implement this system – so much that they become an integral part of the act of violating human rights.  These isolation units we visited in fact make an appearance in one of the landmark detention cases, where the High Court found the UKBA – now the Home Office – to have breached immigration detainees’ Article 3 rights.  We are distracting ourselves if our main concern remains whether the Home Office technically breached detainees’ Article 3 rights or not on specific occasions – the point is that the inhumane practice of detention continues every day, even on days that the High Court is not paying any attention to it.

The isolations units were drab and bleak, but surprisingly unremarkable.  I didn’t see any specific instruments of torture, nor blood stains.  There was no screaming and the flip flops were mute.  That’s where detention continues, unwitnessed.

Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre

Image courtesy of Michael Collins

This article by H was published as part of Unlocking Detention series on Open Democracy.

One man tells of his experience of being incarcerated in the UK for three years for being a migrant, and why the memories of violence and conflict in Brook House – where he attempted suicide – will never leave him.

Brook House is a migrant detention centre next to Gatwick airport. It is one of eleven detention centres across the UK where migrants can be detained indefinitely.

When I arrived I had never heard the name ‘Brook House’ before and I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what county I was in or which part of the UK I was in. I had been trafficked here and I had committed no crime.

When we stopped at the gates waiting for them to open I heard the sound of planes. I was in a van and it was intimidating and appalling because I was locked in with no window for fresh air.

When I saw it, it looked like a prison. And hearing the planes meant I was always reminded of the fear of being put on a plane by force and returned to persecution in my country. I’d been locked up in the past in my own country as a child, again, for committing no crime. Going back into a building of that nature again made me feel sick. It really wasn’t so different, except that in the UK I wasn’t beaten.

During the three year period I spent locked up in the UK for being a migrant, I experienced life in several of the UK’s eleven detention centres. The face of the building is always the same. But being locked up at night was different at Brook House. In some of the other centres there was a ‘risk assessment’ and only the detainees who posed a risk were locked up. But at night in Brook House the officers shouted that everyone should get behind their door and they went round locking everyone in their room. The doors banged and crashed shut and the noise was amplified because everything echoed in Brook House. Some detainees banged the doors and shouted. Eventually it went quiet unless the officers came to force someone to leave the centre to catch a plane. To be woken up by that noise was to feel choked, petrified, scared.

In Brook House you were in a small cell. No-one could have called it a room. There was no air through the windows because the glass couldn’t be opened. When you are in detention, you think about the air a lot. In the detention centre in Dover the windows opened a slit and they had bars but in Brook House the window was closed like a wall. If I could speak to the architect who designed Brook House, I would ask the architect to make the windows with a slit to let the air in.

The toilet was in the room and I would also ask the architect to make that separate. There should also be a door for privacy. Privacy makes you feel like a human being. I just sat on my bed and read my Bible and waited for the next day to come. I tried to focus on the word of God to survive. People watched TV in their cells and I sometimes watched football and tennis but I didn’t like to watch adventure or suspense movies because they made me feel bad.

In Brook House I spent most of my time in the Chapel. It was calm in the Chapel whereas in other places people had arguments and there was trouble. The Chapel looked small in size but it was inviting. It helped me to be able to get through my time in Brook House. I remember the scent of incense and the smell of candles. We sang in the Chapel and at those times I felt I could cope for a moment until I was back on my wing with TVs blaring.

The noisiest place in Brook House was the shop. It was so expensive! There were fights about queuing which seemed petty given that we were all together in detention. When there was a fight, officers would run to the place where it was happening and Brook House would get ‘locked down’. I had the feeling people should be worrying about their case and their lives and their future rather than about a shop queue. But the queue was a magnet for people to air their frustrations. There’s no way in Brook House to release your tension and people have many different cultures and outlooks and that makes them find it difficult to get on. If I needed to buy things from the shop I would run there ten minutes before it closed to avoid a busy time with conflict.

There’s a yard in Brook House. It’s very small and people go there to sit and smoke. The visits room in Brook House provided a rare glimpse of the outside world where you could express yourself for the first time.

When you talked to someone in the visits room you could forget where you were for a moment, until you went back in. The visits room was welcoming and you felt happy when someone was sitting there waiting for you. The end of a visit was hard. I used to wish the end of a visit would never come. At the end of a visit I remembered where I was again and that I had no freedom, and the reality of Brook House came flooding back. You were searched when you left the visits room and you passed through three doors. When you got back to your room it felt very cold.

Some people didn’t have a single visit the whole time they were there.
Being in Brook House for a long time affects your mental health. I tried to kill myself twice in Brook House because it was just too much. They put my name in a special book and then officers came to check on me every thirty minutes. I never liked it at all because I didn’t want to see their faces. When I saw them, I felt angry. Once I was taken to ‘the Block’ in Brook House. The cell in the Block has only a mattress and no bedding. People go there before they go on a flight and so you hear people crying.

Now I’ve been out of detention for 10 months and I’m living with a friend, reporting weekly and trying to turn my life around. But the rest of my story remains to be told. I am young, but I have had a hard life and I am still suffering. I think the reason my trauma stays with me is because of the three years I spent in detention. I’m outside detention now but I still feel as if I am in detention. I still feel controlled.

Brook House was built for people to be there for short periods of time. It doesn’t have what people need if they are there for months. If it was understood that people were coming for a long time there could at least be more education. In the three years I was in detention – in Brook House and other centres – I could have taken a degree! Human resources are being wasted. My life has been wasted. If I could speak to the people who run the Centre, I would ask them to respond to people as human beings because we were treated like animals or slaves. What your master says is what you have to do.

I still have nightmares. I dream about Brook House. I can’t escape from the memories.