“When I become untamed”: Reflections on life in detention

Trigger warning: references to death

This poem was written and recorded by Red*, a member of the Freed Voices. The Freed Voices are a group of experts-by-experience, people with lived experience of immigration detention who are committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. Between them, they have lost over 20 years to detention.

Here, Red tells us about the context of writing ‘When I become untamed’.

I was in immigration detention for 10 months. I thought that I would be there for a short period of time until things were clarified. I thought I was there due to a misunderstanding. I have always been naive, and this time was no exception. 

I wrote this poem while I was detained in Colnbrook IRC, near Heathrow airport. I was held in Colnbrook the whole time I was detained, until I was released earlier this year.

Writing a poem was a way to exorcise the demons that grow inside you while you are in detention: feeling hopeless, helpless and oppressed; feeling like there’s nowhere to go and there’s nothing you can do to overcome the situation. In detention, there’s only uncertainty and you have to fight to stay alive and keep your mind sane. All the frustration and negativity that grows inside you can take control of your thoughts and your life. I was trying to defend myself from all these things when I wrote this poem. It is inspired by the impossibility of communicating with members of my family while I was in detention.

*Red is not his real name but has been chosen to protect his identity.

Image by @Carcazan


The guide to #Unlocked17 blogs is here!

Thank you for following Unlocking Detention in 2017!  We have listed all the blogs that were published during #Unlocked on this webpage for easy reference. Did you have any particular favourite? If so, tweet at us at @DetentionForum and let us know!

16 October: Welcome to #Unlocked17

16 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 1 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience

17 October: ‘Do you know what immigration detention is?’ Part 2 Told by Mrs A, expert-by-experience 
As we begin this year’s Unlocking Detention tour, we are sharing this two-part series by Mrs A, submitted by her solicitor at Duncan Lewis. We have not met Mrs A. We have no idea who she is.  We understand that she was detained herself and wants to tell you about the secret world of immigration detention.  And here it is, her take on immigration detention in the United Kingdom.

17 October: #Unlocked17 – a beginners’ level quiz

18 October: For groups wanting to support Unlocking Detention
One of the themes of this year’s Unlocking Detention tour is action.  We are distributing the following material for groups interested in joining the tour.  Please feel free to use them, share with others and so on!

18 October: Verne closes, Shaw looms
Detention Action has been running advice surgeries every month at the Verne detention centre, which is set to close at the end of this year.  Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action, considers what our next task is.  

18 October: “We need it now. People are dying.” Freed Voices lobbying for #Time4aTimeLimit
The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.

20 October: ‘The Seamed Zones’
Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start?  Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between nonplace-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.  

Week 2: Yarl’s Wood 

23 October: ‘Everyday in Yarl’s Wood is a struggle’
Boatemaa* was detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year.  She was recently released from Yarl’s Wood, to continue with her asylum case, after four months in detention.  She shares her story here.  

24 October: Photo essay ‘To Yarl’s Wood detention centre’
Yarl’s Wood detention centre is perhaps the most high-profile centres in the UK.  This photo essay is for those of you who have never been to this detention centre.

25 October: ‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’
Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said ‘I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 

26 October: Remembering My First Time
Though no official survey exists, UK is one of the few countries around the world where each detention centre has a dedicated visitor’s group, in addition to other groups who visit formally and informally multiple centres.  Hundreds of people must be regularly visiting those held in detention centres, but what does visiting really do?  Sonja Miley of Waging Peace write how she found an answer to this question, during her very first visit to Yarl’s Wood.

Week 2 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Yarls Wood

Week 3: Brook House and Tinsley House

30 October: ‘I try to forget about everything that I went through at Brook House.’
Paul* was removed from Brook House to Jamaica earlier this year, after being detained for over two years.  For the last six months of his detention, he had signed up to return voluntarily.  Paul talked to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, who supported him during his detention, about his attempt to ‘forget about everything’ that he went through at Brook House.  (This is not his real name.)

31 October: Why political pressure needs to be ramped up now
The Detention Forum which runs Unlocking Detention is a network of many groups who have been working together to challenge UK’s immigration detention policy and practice.  Jon Featonby, one of its Coordination Group members, explains why now is the time for everyone to start taking action against detention. 

Week 3 summary blog: #Unlocked17 visits Brook House and Tinsley House

Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

6 November: ‘There are no real seasons in detention. It’s just a grey blur. White noise.’
Immigration detention is sometimes described as ‘administrative detention in prison-like conditions’.  And the Home Office can detain people under immigration powers in prisons. In fact, as at 26 June 2017, there were 360 people held in prison establishments in England and Wales as “immigration detainees”. But what are the differences between being held in prisons and being held in detention centres?  Sam, from the Freed Voices, contemplates on this question. This piece was originally published in May 2017 by Detention Action.   

7 November: ‘No one has even thought of me or visited me’ – immigration detention in prisons
When we talk about immigration detention, of course we think of immigration detention centres.  But hundreds of people are also detained as “immigration detainees” in many ordinary prisons.  Ali McGinley of AVID shines light on this forgotten group of people and their daily struggles to be heard.

7 November: Parliamentary meeting on immigration detention on 16 November – is your MP attending?

8 November: An open letter: “My name is Nobody”
For many involved in asylum and migration justice work, immigration detention was a taboo subject for a long time and, in some quarters, it still is. One of the reasons for this is the mixed nature of those incarcerated. It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. But ‘As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy?’. Isabel Lima, visual artist and researcher, shares with Unlocking Detention her open letter about Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo. This letter is based on a true story and Nobody was anonymised for security reasons. 

9 November: If I am ever detained
There is understandably huge interest in knowing what immigration detention centres look like: barbed wire and prohibition of cameras inside the centres increase people’s curiosity.  But can you see the impact of immigration detention with your eyes?  What does immigration detention do to us? In this blog, Eiri Ohtani (@EiriOhtani), the Project Director of the Detention Forum shares her reflection and that of her colleague, Heather Jones (@Heather_Jones5) who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre for many years. They visited Alice* who was detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. (This is not her real name.)

Week 4 summary blog: Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

Week 5: The Verne

13 November: ‘The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open’
We are told that the Verne detention centre will be closed at the end of 2017.  But is it really closing in the minds of those who were detained there? ‘Juan’ from Freed Voices responds to this news with this poem.

13 November: “When you see injustice – speak out!”: These Walls Must Fall in Manchester
Without people taking action, change won’t happen.  Luke Butterly of Right to Remain reports back on a recent campaign event of These Walls Must Fall which took place in Manchester.  This blog was originally published on Right to Remain’s website here.  

14 November: Won’t somebody please think of the children
The impact of immigration detention is not confined behind the gates of the detention centres: it involves people’s children, families, friends etc. Nick Watts is a child & family practitioner and co-founder of the charity Migrant Family Action, that provides specialist social work, advocacy and youth work to families who are oppressed as a result of their immigration status. Nick explains here what types of impact immigration detention has on children whose family member is detained.

15 November: The Verne IRC: on either side of the razor wire
Maddie Biddlecombe is a member of Verne Visitors Group in Portland and sent us this reflection.  The Verne detention centre is set to close at the end of 2017.   

16 November: Trafficked into detention
Trafficked people in detention are being denied the full protection of the Home Office’s flagship system for protecting victims of modern slavery, according to new research by Detention Action. Many victims of trafficking are taken to high-security detention centres after being picked up in raids on places of exploitation such as cannabis factories. Once in detention, they are treated as irregular migrants to be removed, and find it difficult to access support for victims of modern slavery. Susannah Wilcox of Detention Action explains how came to light through Detention Action’s casework and what their research found. 

16 November: Going Behind the Walls
Located on the Isle of Portland, off Weymouth in Dorset, the Verne epitomises the Government’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to detention. In this blog, Ruth Jacobson of the Verne Visitors Group describes how this isolation compounds the many harms of indefinite detention, how the group seeks to challenge this, and their reaction to the announced closure of the Verne.     

19 November: #Unlocked17 Parliamentary Meeting on Immigration Detention

Week 5 summary blog: Week 5: #Unlocked17 Visits The Verne

Week 6: Campsfield House

20 November: Walls of resistance
This piece is written for Unlocking Detention by ‘Jose’ of the Freed Voices group (the author’s name has been altered to protect their identity). ‘Jose’ was detained in Campsfield detention centre.   

21 November: Detained for sleeping rough
Increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from the UK has been in the news for some time, especially in the context of debates surrounding Brexit.  NELMA has been working with EU citizens who have been detained while sleeping rough.   

21 November: WORKSHOP 11 DEC, GLASGOW – Oral histories of immigration detention: ethical approaches in research and activism

22 November: Slave Wages: How Our Clients Shone a Light on Detention Centre Exploitation
Toufique Hossain, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, specialises in challenging Government policy and practice in asylum and immigration law, with a particular focus on unlawful detention policies. He tells Unlocking Detention about the strategic litigation case of “slave wage” in detention centres he has been involved with and what it is like to represent people who are caught up in this never-ending nightmare of immigration detention.  

23 November: “Time After Time”: music from Campsfield House detention centre
In this blog, Ruth Nicholson describes a day of Music In Detention’s songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. Ruth is a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum. This blog was originally published by Music in Detention in March this year here where you can also listen to the music recorded in Campsfield.

23 November: ‘Young arrivers’ caught in immigration detention
Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol. 

24 November: ‘When I first visited someone in immigration detention I knew I must speak out.’
Immigration detention is an important issue for many Friends (Quakers). Bridget Walker, who is part of the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, details the conditions she witnessed and those endured by detained peoples.  This blog was originally published by Quakers in Britain 

Week 6 summary blog: Week 6: #Unlocked17 visits Campsfield House

Week 7: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook                                       

27 November: Five guys
Reflections on indefinite detention are often framed in the singular, as personal and introspective testimonies. In this special piece for Unlocking Detention, however, Mishka from Freed Voices, sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth detention centre and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release. 

28 November: Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention
Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  

29 November: Four days in Colnbrook
This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US.  In this blog, she recounts her experience.

30 November: The Importance of Being With
Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

1 December: From British playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres
Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol) The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/ethnicity/projects/deportability-and-the-family/

Week 7 summary blog: Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

Week 8: Morton Hall

4 December: Mapping detention
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.

5 December: It’s about time – a time limit on immigration detention
Since the publication of Detained Lives (which Tamsin Algers refers to in her earlier blog here), a campaign to end UK’s practice of indefinite detention has been gathering pace.  Rachel Robinson, Advocacy Manager for Liberty, argues why the time is now to end this practice once and for all.  

6 December: Over 150 people demonstrate to mark 24 years since Campsfield ‘House’ opened
This blog was written by Bill MacKeith, joint organiser of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, for Unlocking Detention. Photos: Campaign to Close Campsfield

7 December: Putting stock Home Office statements in the stocks
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.

8 December: ‘A Prison For My Heart’
Coming out is often be a nervous and fearful experience – what does it feel like to that in immigration detention? Umar (not his real name) had to do that to protect his life. We are grateful to Umar who said he wanted share his story in order to raise awareness about the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers and refugees and made this story publicly available, though was anxious to conceal his identity.  

Week 8 summary blog: Week 8: #Unlocked17 visits Morton Hall 

Week 9: Dungavel

11 December: Visiting Dungavel for another year…
This week, #Unlocked17 is visiting Dungavel, Scotland’s only detention centre. In this blog, Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV), reflects on another year of visiting Dungavel, and takes us on the journey that visitors make twice a week. Visitors also prepare a report after every visit, which Kate reviews. Here, she highlights the patterns she sees in these reports: of visitors’ concerns about the health of those in detention, frequently linked to the length of time people have been detained; of people’s frustration, anger and distress at their detention and the complex immigration processes they are caught up in; and of their worries about their families on the outside. 

12 December: If only everyone could be welcomed as warmly as Paddington…
Jawad Anjum and Steve Rolfe are activists with Global Justice Glasgow, a group of committed people who campaign to tackle the root causes of global poverty and injustice as part of Global Justice Now, a democratic movement in the UK which campaigns in solidarity with people in the global South. They write for Unlocking Detention about a lively campaign that is going on in Scotland.  

13 December: Life After Detention: A Film
The harm caused by detention does not end once a person is released. For many, the trauma of detention, and the struggles with uncertainty, continue. This is the subject of ‘Life After Detention’, a new film made in collaboration with the Life After Detention group from Scottish Detainee Visitors. The group filmed aspects of their life in Glasgow on their mobile phones and worked with film-maker and SDV volunteer, Alice Myers, to create the film. It was premiered at an Unlocking Detention event on Tuesday 12 December at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.

18 December: Guantanamo Bay, A Tube Ride Away
In the final week of Unlocking Detention, we are now looking at where we will go from here. And we believe it is a perfect opportunity to publish this speech delivered last month by Jose, from the Freed Voices group to launch Amnesty’s #WriteForRights project. Jose says, ‘hope calls for action, just as action is impossible without hope’ and shares what gave him hope when he was in detention and when he is campaigning to end indefinite detention. The speech was originally published by Detention Action.

19 December: “If more people knew what was going on, more would recoil in disgust and demand explanations.”
This year’s Unlocking Detention featured over 40 blogs. Massive thank you to everyone who contributed and shone a light on the reality of immigration detention! As we conclude this year’s tour, some of the volunteers running the project share blogs that have left special impression on their minds. If there was any blog that especially resonated with you, do let us know which one and also why.

Week 9 Summary: #Unlocked visits Dungavel

Week 7: #Unlocked17 visits Harmondsworth and Colnbrook

The seventh week of #Unlocked17 focused on Harmondsworth and Colnbrook: two detention centres alongside one another, a stone’s throw from the runway at Heathrow airport. Around 1,000 migrants are detained across these two sites.
Harmondsworth alone has space for up to 661 men – making it the largest detention centre in Europe (yet another shameful record the UK holds, alongside being the only country in Europe without a time limit, and for detaining more migrants than any other country in Europe, except Greece).
Harmondsworth and Colnbrook are both run by for-profit company Mitie: in 2014, they won a bid worth £180 million to run the two centres until 2022. 
This week also saw some encouraging news from Manchester in the campaign against immigration detention: scroll down to learn more!

Inside Harmondsworth

The latest Prisons’ Inspector report, published in 2015 (after Mitie took over the running of the centre), was scathing. It said, “Many of the concerns that we identified in 2013 have not been rectified and in some respects matters have deteriorated.”
The report flagged the vulnerability of many of those in detention: in their survey, 80% of men said that they had had problems on arrival and nearly half said they had felt depressed or suicidal.
They also highlighted the length of detention, noting that over half were detained in the centre for over a month. 18 people had been held for over a year, and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.

This week’s first blog for Unlocking Detention came from Mishka from Freed Voices, who was detained in Harmondsworth. He sketches five guys that shaped his experience of Harmondsworth and continue to dominate his thoughts today, post-release. The five vignettes are called ‘Skeleton’, ‘Lifer’, ‘Blood’, ‘Brother’ and ‘Michael’. It’s a must-read piece, available here.

We also re-visited some older pieces written by experts-by-experience about Harmondsworth, such as Shariff:

Inside Colnbrook

Neighbouring Harmondsworth is Colnbrook, a high-security detention centre with capacity to detain just over 400 people, the majority men.
A Prisons’ Inspector report published in 2016 flagged the continued detention of vulnerable people and issues in the provision of care, noting, “Healthcare was an area of particular concern. Chronic staffing shortages affected the continuity and consistency of care. Care for those with severe mental health needs was generally good, but it was concerning that people with such severe illnesses were in immigration detention at all”

This week, we had an insider’s account of Colnbrook from Helen, a US citizen who was detained in Colnbrook for four days after travelling from to the UK to visit a friend. She wrote a detailed account of her experiences, documenting the injustice she felt and saw. You can read it here

Visiting Colnbrook and Harmondsworth

As part of Unlocking Detention’s virtual tour of Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, we also heard from individuals involved in visiting these centres and challenging detention.
First, Tamsin Alger, who has worked at Detention Action for ten years, looked back at actions taken over the last decade to challenge the injustice of immigration detention, including by people in detention, herself and her organisation, and at what’s changed in that time.
She concludes: “So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely.” Read her reflections here.

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK. With volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Finally, we had a post from Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths, examining the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status.
They write, “Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
You can read their blog here.

Manchester City Council passes a motion condemning immigration detention

We had some great news from Manchester this week, with the city council becoming the first in the UK to pass a motion condemning immigration detention. The full wording of the motion is here. Visit These Walls Must Fall to find out more!

And more support for #Time4aTimeLimit, including from a celebrity:

Mapping detention

Images courtesy of Freed Voices

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.”

The importance of being with

Image courtesy of @Manchestermisol

Beatrice Grasso is Detention Outreach Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK where, with volunteers, she supports many detained in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres. In this blog, she explains how their mission “Accompany, Serve and Advocate” informs and shapes their work in these detention centres, ‘places most people don’t even realise exist’.

Imagine being taken away from home in the middle of the night, no time to pack, to call your friends. Imagine being driven around in a van for hours not knowing your destination, no breaks, strangers joining you in your mutual confusion. And now imagine being told you’re going to be detained, indefinitely.

No, this isn’t a prison, but it sure looks like one. You don’t know when you’ll be released, or indeed even if you’ll be allowed to stay in this country at all. It might just be possible that you’ll be put on the next plane to a country you left as a child, where they speak a language you don’t understand, where you’ll be a foreigner in everything but your documents. You don’t know if you’ll see your home again, laugh with your friends, play with your children.

Your life as you knew it is officially over: you might leave detention at some point, but detention will never leave you.

This can’t be real, right? It certainly sounds like a nightmare, not like something that could ever happen today in the UK. Yet, for many of the people we regularly visit and support inside immigration detention centres, this is exactly how it works.

At the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK, we’re committed to caring for those who are totally neglected or inadequately attended to, supporting the most vulnerable members of our society. People held in Immigration Removal Centres definitely fall into this category, forgotten as they often are in places most people don’t even realise exist.

Providing pastoral care to people in detention is a challenging task we have set ourselves, but one that our many committed volunteers nonetheless tirelessly dedicate themselves to, visiting the Heathrow Immigration Removal Centres every week. We strive to provide what support we can, attempting to bring comfort where there is only distress.
This is not without its difficulties: how can we avoid giving in to the despair that surrounds us? What can we do, when we are faced with so many questions we simply do not know the answers to? Where can we find the strength to battle the frustration and the helplessness we feel when we realise there is nothing we can do to change that person’s situation?

To find the answers to these questions, we need to go back to our mission: “Accompany, Serve and Advocate”. Accompanying these men through what is possibly one of the darkest times in their life means walking alongside them as they navigate their fears and the uncertainty their future holds. Serving them as companions, putting them at centre of all that we do, and accepting the fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do except to be: to be present and available for whatever is needed, be it a word of comfort or just a shared silence, and sometimes simply to be there, with them and for them. And lastly, to advocate, giving them the voice that has been taken away from them, making sure that, while they might be out of sight, they are not put out of mind.

When starting our service in detention, many of us are guided by a deep desire to fight injustices and change the world. We are soon confronted with the fact that this is much too big a task for anyone to carry out by themselves. When the sadness surrounding us becomes overwhelming, it is tempting to think that this has all been a pointless exercise. When we witness the mental and physical deterioration of so many over time, it is hard to remain convinced that we still have a meaningful role to play.

When our ideals seem just illusions, it is easy to start feeling hopeless. It is in those times, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the true strength of our work, which is not found in grandiose gestures, but in little, daily acts of love. A phone call every few days tells a young man that he is in our thoughts. A visit gives him something to look forward to. A listening ear gives him the space to express his anger and pain, knowing that, for once, he will not be judged for what he says.

There have been many instances in the past where this has become apparent, but one episode in particular resonates with this. During one of our regular visits, we were approached by a young man who, like so many others, was devastated by the fact that detention was tearing his family apart. His greatest despair, he told us, was that he would not be there for his child’s fourth birthday the following week. His greatest fear was that she would think he had forgotten about her, and this constant worry was breaking him. Thanks to the generosity of many, we were able to help him by sending his daughter a small gift and a birthday card in his name. The joy in his voice when we saw him again is a memory that will last for a very long time. What was only a small gesture to us, had helped this family feel together again, if only for a brief time, and had, in that moment, made his stay in detention slightly more bearable.

It is through these small acts of care, then, that we can try to shine a small light of hope in the dark void that is indefinite detention. For until this inhumane practice is brought to an end, and a time limit on detention is introduced, this is all we can wish to do. We might not be able to change the world, but we must do all we can to change one person’s world.

Four days in Colnbrook

This blog was written by Helen*, a US citizen who travelled to the UK and was detained earlier this year. She spent four days in Colnbrook detention centre, before being returned to the US.  In this blog, she recounts her experience.
*This is not her real name.
Day 1:
I arrived at Gatwick Airport, from the US, at 10.15am. I spoke to a UK Border Control agent, who questioned me about my plans in the UK.
I told him that my friend, a British Citizen, was already at the airport waiting for me and that we had planned to meet in the UK, so that we could travel around Europe then make our way back to the US to see my family. I was requesting up to 30 days in the UK for us to be able to make appropriate plans together.
The officer escorted me to a small waiting area and told me that I had to wait until they found my friend. I waited for two hours, at which time they told me I was being detained for questioning. I asked why and they said they needed more information, which was fine – I had nearly everything they could ever want with me: my birth certificate, paycheck stubs, disability papers, health insurance information, cash, cards… everything.
They immediately confiscated all my baggage, my cellphone, my laptop and my journal. They brought me to a room in the back, with seven other people in it. Everyone was distraught and crying and there were people of all nations there, male and female, husbands and wives who were refused to see each other or where only one spouse was let through while the other was detained.
They said I could make a call but when I said I needed to call my mother in the US they told me I was not permitted to make international calls. I asked them where my friend was and if they found him yet, and they said they were not permitted to tell me.
It was freezing cold, because the air conditioner was on full blast. I was really upset and scared because no one was telling me anything or letting me talk to anyone. I couldn’t stop crying and I was freezing cold and tired and I could barely even think properly.
I was in that room for four hours before they took me to an interview room and questioned me. I answered the best I could and informed them I have diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was not feeling mentally well enough for any of the current experiences.  I kept asking them if they found my friend yet, and they said they did and that they were going to question him and then make a decision to grant or deny entry. I knew that my friend was going to tell them what I had told them.
They put me back in the cold room for another four hours. My mind was slowly being put in a very dark place and I was not thinking clearly. They finally informed my friend they were refusing entry at 7pm and told him not to tell anybody.
They came to me at 9pm, and told me that I was going to be sent to a removal center, which is a nice way of saying prison, for four days and then they were sending me back to Pittsburgh. I asked them why – they said they were not permitted to tell me and I would have to wait for them to issue a report that they would give me a copy of.
At this point I had already been crying for many hours, I had not slept or eaten, and for what seemed like no good reason I was being treated like a criminal.
They took me into a room where they took photos and fingerprints then sent me back to the cold room. I asked where I was going and was told I would be taken “someplace” five minutes down the road in an hour. They couldn’t tell me the name of the place. I lay on the ice-cold metal bench until 11pm.
Three hours later, at 2am, I was escorted into a dark tinted van and taken “someplace” an hour away. The only clue I had was when I was able to see one road sign that said, “Heathrow Airport”.
When I got to the destination I had to be let through many levels of security fences with barbed wire at the top and bars on all the windows. I knew this was a prison as soon as I saw the fences. I couldn’t believe I was being taken to such a place simply because I’d booked a flight to London to see my friend.
They took me inside where I was fingerprinted again and photographed. They told me to wait in another room. I told them I was not feeling okay and that I thought I was going to collapse. They told me to lay down on the bench in the room and wait. They never once offered medical treatment or a medical examination during this entire process, even when I told them that I have a serious diagnosed disability, and was not feeling well enough to receive the treatment I was given.
Finally, at 5am, I was escorted into yet another freezing cold room with a bed with two other women. They allowed me to call my mom. I told her everything that had just happened and went straight to sleep.
Day 2:
I woke up and was offered breakfast but I was still unable to eat. I had been given a towel and bedsheets the previous night, but I had no access to my clothing or toiletries. I couldn’t change my clothes. I noticed other women with some personal belongings and asked how they got them and they told me I had to put in a request so I did. They said it may take a few hours so I looked around the unit I was in.
There were ten bedrooms with three beds in each room, and a main room with a couch, a TV, a Nintendo Wii, four computers with internet access, a multi-religious prayer room, a laundry room, a small kitchen, a shower room, and two separate toilet rooms.
It actually didn’t seem so bad other than the fact that it was freezing cold outside and yet inside they had vents in the ceilings of every room, blowing out freezing cold air. There had been many complaints by everyone about how cold it was. My roommates had taken pieces of paper and taped them over the vents in our bedroom hoping that would lessen the icy room temperature but it did not seem to help much.
I was given a cell phone without a camera. They provided a sim card for me to be allowed calls from my family. I was able to make calls to the UK for free but in order to contact my family I had to buy top up cards from the store. I wasn’t able to buy anything, despite having cash being held for me, because it was US currency. They said I would have to put in a separate request to allow them to exchange my money which would allow me to purchase what I needed. I asked them to do that but they never did.
I was allowed access to the internet but every website was blocked except for my email. I used my email to contact my family and my friend.
I mostly used this time to begin to heal myself and talk to the other women for support. There were women there from mostly Asian countries, a few from African countries, a woman from one European country, a woman from Russia, and one other American. The American and the Russian woman stayed in the same room as me. We were all able to communicate pretty well despite some language barriers. Most of the women came to me asking to help them translate things into English or communicate their needs to the guards, as I was able to understand what they were trying to communicate despite not knowing their languages – mostly through hand motions and body language.
At least I could feel as if I was helping – even though I was in need of help myself, at least I knew what was going on by that point. I could only imagine being locked up in one of their countries where I didn’t know what anyone was saying to me. To take focus off my own struggle I spent a lot of time listening to other women talk about their experiences and why they were in there and the despair they felt being taken from their loved ones in such an inhumane fashion only to be treated like criminals.
They were all mothers and lovers and survivors and strong beautiful women in the same situation regardless of race, color, creed, class. There were students, women with all the right paperwork, visas, return tickets, a lot of money, no money. There were women who had been detained multiple times and went back to get the right paperwork and tried to re-enter after doing everything properly and still it didn’t seem to matter.
I kept reading all the paperwork they gave me as to why they refused me and realized that they had not even listened to anything my friend or I told them in the interviews. They just basically twisted all my words to conform to whatever mold they chose no matter how incorrect it was. They had ALL of my information, legitimate and official US documents, way more than most people travel with – yet they claimed I didn’t have anything reliable or sufficient.
Day 3:
I still hadn’t received any of my clothes or toiletries. I was offered breakfast, lunch and dinner and tried to eat but was still unable to hold down any solid food. I was given no medical treatment or an examination. I was told my requests for money exchange and clothing had still not gone through. The whole place is highly disorganized.
I asked when I would be released because I needed to let my family know when to pick me up at the airport. They told me they didn’t have this information and I would have to wait until I am picked up for my flight on Friday afternoon.
Day 4:
Instead of being picked up in the afternoon as I was told, I was woken up at midnight, only one hour after I fell asleep, to be driven back to the airport. I still had no idea when my flight would be. I arrived at Gatwick Airport at 2am where they took me back into the cold room.
I asked them if there was any information about my flight and they told me they were neither permitted to tell me when I would leave nor would I be given any of my information, paperwork, passport or possessions until I left the UK, and was at my connecting flight in another country.
The officer told me that I would be there until one hour before my flight, then I would be escorted to the airplane. I waited with five other people for seven hours with no food or drink, until 9am when I was escorted to the airplane and boarded in a separate door before any other passengers were seated.
I was given all my possessions when I was transferred to a connecting flight, including a folder with all the paperwork from the entire experience inside. As I read through it I could not believe all the lies and misinformation that was included in the reports.
They claimed I was offered medical examinations and refused them all, which was absolutely untrue.
They claimed “I declined to be health screened saying she did not know why she was here” when in fact I had told them I was suffering symptoms of my disability and did want to be screened.
The entire experience has left me distraught. As I am starting to gain back strength and clarity, from my understanding, they decided I was an immigrant trying to come into the country and never leave, or overstay my welcome. Even though there was overwhelming evidence to prove that wrong, it did not matter.
I understand that the law played a huge role in this. No matter how right or wrong the law is, they were doing all the things the law required them to do for the situation they thought was happening. What bothers me more than the incredibly extreme laws was the way I was being treated and the total lack of understanding. After answering everything honestly and providing all the evidence they required to prove I was not an asylum seeker or trying to immigrate, they still treated me like I was an object that they could just put in the refrigerator and forget about. I was not given proper treatment or care whatsoever.
Now I am in their system for “the end of a period of ten years beginning with the day on which the fingerprints were taken.” So even if I wanted to visit the UK again, which I don’t, they would just keep detaining me continuously for the next 10 years.
After I got home, I did some research about immigration detention in the UK. After reading all the facts and statistics about this, I find no comfort in knowing I am one of these statistics. I only hope that in the future more people will come forward and keep sharing their stories so that one day these laws can be exposed – they are in desperate need of reform.

Ten years on: reflections on a decade working on the injustice of detention

Immigration detention and the detention estate sometimes appear permanent and unchanging. However, underneath the surface, things are changing. Tamsin Alger, Casework and Policy Manager at Detention Action, looks back at a catalogue of actions people in detention, she and her organisation have taken to challenge immigration detention over the last 10 years.  
Ten years ago this month, I started working at Detention Action (London Detainee Support Group at the time). One of the first things I did was to attend our newly established information and advice workshops in Colnbrook. For the first time, I experienced the sterile, claustrophobic atmosphere that grew with each door that was unlocked and locked again behind us as we moved further and further into the centre, further and further away from the barbed wire fences and massive metal doors to the outside world. Last month, I was at Harmondsworth for another workshop. In that time, Detention Action has supported over 8,000 people in Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, the Verne and HMP Pentonville. Over that time, what’s changed in immigration detention, and how has Detention Action adapted to respond?
I remember that first workshop very clearly. The atmosphere felt tense, it was very noisy. Some people spoke to us urgently; others were angry, their frustration and desperation spilling out. One man was softly spoken, eyes not quite in focus, dosed up on medication, as he showed us his arms criss-crossed with self-inflicted scars, some old and faded, many new and raw-edged.
Most people I met that day had been detained for more than a year with no end date in sight. Two years, three years, in detention didn’t feel uncommon in Colnbrook at that time. They were mainly from countries that were considered too dangerous to return people to, like Somalia, or where there were problems getting travel documents, like Iran. Most were detained following a conviction, often spending far longer in detention under immigration powers than their original sentence.
Our focus was a new area of work, unlawful detention. We worked with a leading solicitor firm to identify and refer such cases for legal challenges in the High Court, building up a body of case law. From those early workshops in Colnbrook, our first campaign against indefinite detention was born. For the first time, following the publication of our research, Detained Lives, it felt like the issue of detention was on the map, the voices of those inside finally being heard beyond the borders of detention.
Next door was Harmondsworth. Another high security detention centre, Harmondsworth was dominated by the Detained Fast Track (DFT), a process where asylum seekers were held in detention for their cases to be heard on very tight timescales. The refusal rate was 99%.
One particular workshop sticks in my mind. This workshop was held in the wing set aside for people arriving or about to leave the centre. Over 50 people came to see us that day. There was a charter flight to Afghanistan two days later, and the wing was full of desperate people, spat out at the end of an unfair process that they hadn’t understood. They crowded round us, waving letters from the Home Office with the date, time and flight number of the plane that would return them to the country they had fled. There was so little that we could do. Most had solicitors who’d stopped representing them early in the process, saying they wouldn’t be able to get legal aid to carry on because of the way in which the DFT was stacked against them. As we sat down one by one, we picked out the most extremely vulnerable people where we might be able to persuade a keen solicitor to look into their case again in the very short time frame. For the rest, we listened to their fears, we heard their despair at the injustice they’d experienced in a country they’d always thought was a standard for human rights. And we decided that this had to stop.
Our second campaign, to end the Detained Fast Track, began with our report Fast Track to Despair.  I remember the launch event – a packed room, a sense of possibility despite some dissenting voices, and the spark of a movement that brought NGOs and lawyers together to support our legal challenge to the DFT. I’ve lost count of the number of times we were in court over the two years of litigation, as we kept winning each stage of the case, but had to keep fighting on and on for any meaningful change for the people we spoke to every day in Harmondsworth. Eventually, in July 2015, the DFT was suspended and in the December the Supreme Court ruled finally in our favour.
Last month, I was in Harmondsworth again with a group of staff and volunteers for another workshop. Most of our work is over the phone through our free helpline, in part due to the inaccessible nature of detention centres. Our volunteer visitors provide regular, one to one support to the most vulnerable or isolated people we are in touch with. So our workshops are a vital opportunity to meet new clients who drop in to see who we are and what we can do, as well as a means of renewing relationships face to face with people we’ve been supporting for weeks or months from the office.
Over the years my role has changed. As a manager, I am no longer as directly involved in casework as I used to be, although I make sure I go into the detention centres whenever I can. I have seen a shift away from the two large scale injustices at opposite ends of the spectrum (although it still happens): extreme long-term detention and the unseemly haste of the DFT. The ongoing injustice of detention remains, and yet that injustice now feels splintered into a myriad disparate experiences and often increasingly complicated cases. At the most recent workshop, we met 25 people in very different situations.
Our work, as ever, has changed accordingly. We reach out proactively to the most hard to reach people in detention, often with the most complex cases, and we have developed our expertise to understand their situation and to support their release. On that day, for example, I sat down with a Vietnamese man who had been trafficked to work in a cannabis farm. We’d met him before, when he’d shown us the injuries inflicted by his traffickers, not understanding why he was in detention despite the Home Office recognising he was a torture survivor. Communicating with him through our new volunteer interpreting project, we had referred him to a solicitor to challenge his conviction for cannabis cultivation and to enable him to be identified and protected as a victim of trafficking in line with government policy. He was recently released after several months in detention.
So much has changed in the last ten years. The one constant is the devastating human impact that immigration detention has on people who are held indefinitely. And throughout those ten years, with the changing issues and new challenges and opportunities, it is the human contact between our staff and volunteers and the people we are supporting that remains at the heart of what we do. And, fundamentally, it is people, those in detention and those who’ve been released, and all of us who know and care about this everyday atrocity in the UK who can and will make it change.

The Seamed Zones

Photo taken at the launch of ‘The Seamed Zones’ on 12 October 2017. 

Where does ‘invisibility’ of immigration detention centres start?  Ben du Preez, Campaigns Coordinator at Detention Action, stares into the gap between non-place-ness of detention centres and their material human impact and finds hope in Experts-By-Experience’s power to bring the truth to light.  

Last week, I delivered a speech alongside Michael from the Freed Voices group at the launch of Rob Stothard’s new photo exhibition on detention, entitled ‘The Seamed Zones’.

In perfect dovetail with Unlocking Detention, it is an exhibition which addresses one of the main paradoxes of immigration detention in this country: that despite being one of the most flagrant abuses of civil liberties and human rights in the UK today, the physical sites of this extreme form of physical and psychological violence still remain hidden in plain sight for many members of the public.

Yarl’s Wood IRC, Twinwoods Business Park, Thurleigh Road, Milton Ernest, Bedforshire, MK44 1FD

One of the first photos in the exhibition that catches my eye is of the sign for Twinwoods Business Park near Milton Ernest, a small village about 60 miles north of London. It is a sign that leads drivers into a cul-de-sac where one can find, among other things, Bedford Pets Crematorium, an office of Bedford Borough Council and the headquarters of a company that offers indoor skydiving. The buildings are all unremarkable in their appearance and give few clues as to the practices unfolding inside. There is seemingly nothing to challenge in this banal, Grey nothingness. Everything about it suggests it is one of those common spaces that most people in UK move freely in and out of every day without so much as a second thought. In the corner, however, there is a small concrete pocket holding four hundred people, who cannot leave, or lock eyes with the rest of us, or explain who they are. They have no idea when they will be freed and have extremely limited resources to help them get out. They are trapped in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, perhaps the most infamous of all detention centres in the UK, and the focus of #Unlocked17 tour between 23 and 29 October 2017.

Yarl’s Wood is in no way unique in this respect. Stothard documents every site of immigration detention across the UK – from the short-term holding facilities up in Larne House, Northern Ireland, down to the Verne detention centre on the Isle of Portland – and shows how each of them are reached from everyday roads on the fringes of rural lanes, within the perimeter of airports, or along the exterior walls of former prisons. All of them sit on the ‘seamed zone’ between free and restricted movement. All of them are representations of the way the industrial-immigration-complex has created new physical landscapes, or at the very least re-articulated existing ones into something else. As the exhibition curator, Nicole Sansone, notes, “in an era in which private interests and discriminatory legislation that articulates the infrastructure of segregation and surveillance has become commonplace, IRCs can appear to represent a smooth line of continuity with the fields, fences, homes, businesses and transport hubs in their midst.” This ‘smoothness’ does two things. Firstly, it allows detention centres to go un-seen. Members of the public can almost unconsciously navigate them in the same way pedestrians might  move past/through some one begging for money on the street: they can ignore that which they think does not directly impact their familiar lives. Secondly, it obliterates the question of access: notions of belonging and exclusion have been so normalised, so smoother over, that some seem to have forgotten to even dispute the very idea of detention in of itself.

Larne House, 2 Hope Street, Larne, Antrim, BT40 1UR

The reality is that the ‘invisibility’ surrounding detention centres does not start with the buildings themselves. It starts with the casting and portrayal of those warehoused inside. Career politicians and the gutter press have long cast migrants as monstrous, Others, unchecked, bogus, illegal, temporary. As Freed Voices noted in their recent submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee; “The Government and the press talk about us like we aren’t even human beings. So in detention we are seen as less than animals. We’re just commodities.” This process of dehumanisation, active long before the decision to detain, justifies and enables detention to continue unchecked. On a collective level, it translates into around 30,000 people detained each year. On a personal level, it means individuals are locked away for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

Over time then, the naked violence of indefinite incarceration is forgiven, then muted, then forgotten. The outstanding implication of this is that these people in detention are not worthy of the same kind of duty of care and access to rights, liberties and protection afforded British citizens. Speaking at the exhibition launch, Michael reflected on the recent BBC documentary on Brook House IRC which showed, among many other instances of abuse, someone being held in a choke-hold by detention centre staff: “Can you imagine what would happen to a migrant if they committed the same kind of offences that we experienced every day in detention? Can you even imagine?! There have been thirty-two deaths in detention and no-one been even prosecuted. It is a moral disgrace.”

Heathrow IRC, Colnbrook Bypass, Harmondsworth, West Drayton, UB7 0FX

Sansone describes the UK’s detention estate as a ‘geography of fascism’ and too often fascist policies benefit from invisibility, or partial visibility, growing in the shadows, in silence. When Michael stood up at the exhibition opening and spoke-out about his experiences of detention and the changes he wants to see, he took a wrecking ball to the architecture of detention. His words offer a direct block on the co-operation of racism and power, making visible the sites and processes the Home Office would otherwise have hidden away or slip quietly into the landscape around us. Stothard’s photos seek to do a similar job, as does Unlocking Detention. If you’re not already involved in shining a light on these sites of estrangement, it might be worth asking ‘why not’?

Get involved in this year’s Unlocking Detention! More information here

Rob Stothard’s photography exhibition – ‘Seamed Zones: The Everyday Life of Immigration Removal Centres in the United Kingdom’ – runs until the 29th October at Sluice Art Gallery, Arch 11 & 12 Bohemia Place, E8 1JB, London.

Week 8: #Unlocked16 visits Colnbrook

In this week of Unlocking Detention, we visited Colnbrook detention centre next to Heathrow airport (and the high-security neighbour of Harmondsworth).

The first blog post of the week was a heartbreaking photo-essay by Jon from the Freed Voices group.  Jon shares the letters he received whilst he was detained at Colnbrook detention centre for 99 days last year. These letters – from his younger brother, mother, younger sister and father – provide a harrowing inside into the wider affects of indefinite detention on families and communities.
Read Colnbrook, by post

Next up was another visual essay, by Jay who has been detained in Colnbrook for 3 months. This is the second time he has been detained – he was previously released from detention in 2014.  Jay spoke to Ciara from Detention Action about the impact of detention and how for better or worse, drawing helps to focus his mind in difficult circumstances.  His incredible artwork and devastating story moved many people.
From a supporter on Facebook:

“I hope you can tell him that people are reading his words and understanding the art, and I for one would like to convey my deep concern for him and heartfelt wishes for a good future.”

And via the comments on the blog:

“This is an incredibly moving account by this young man. Being able to express his emotions in drawings is a gift that communicates his situation visually to others. Sometimes I am ashamed to be British, but feel glad I am free to say that. What he says’ one day God will judge this country the Home Office’ resonates with me on so many counts. Good luck my friend, I hope you can stay here until it is safe for you to return home.”

Read My Drawing is My Feeling

Nine months on from the death of Amir Siman Tov in Colnbrook, Michael Goldin reflected in his blog post for Unlocking Detention on the man he knew.
Read A Prison In All But Name

In a special piece for Unlocking Detention, published by Novara Media, Luke de Noronha wrote about the intimate connection between detention and deportation, sharing the stories and views of those deported to Jamaica: “The ghosts that begin to haunt people in detention, stay with them, and follow them to Jamaica”
Read A View From Jamaica

On the Friday of Colnbrook week, tragic news began to break of a death in Colnbrook, and that a murder investigation had been launched. 
We decided that the sharing of the Q and A with Ali should go ahead, as it was more important than ever to get the word out from detention, and share experiences of every day life there.  Because the Q and A wasn’t live, the interview didn’t mention the news of the death.  As ever, there were really thought-provoking questions and engaging, moving and fascinating answers.  Thank you Ali.
See the full Q and A here
It’s been great to hear how Unlocking Detention is reaching people, making people think, and encouraging people to take action (speaking of which – have you read this piece yet about asking your MP to demand the promised detention reform?)

Q&A with Ali, currently detained in Colnbrook

This interview with Ali, who is detained in Colnbrook, took place last week and we planned as usual to tweet the Q and A throughout the afternoon on the Friday of Colnbrook week of #Unlockd16.
On Friday morning, news broke that a man had died in Colnbrook and that a murder investigation had been launched.  As the interview with Ali was not live, there are no questions about this terrible news, or how the people detained in Colnbrook are dealing with such a stressful situation.
We decided it was important to go ahead with getting Ali’s voice out into the wider world.
Here’s the full interview: