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.

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!

Unlocking Detention's visit to Dover

After the visit to the Verne, we moved round the coast and last week, 5 to 11 October, Unlocking Detention ‘visited’ Dover detention centre. 

We had some great blog posts throughout the week – first up was Fraser from Samphire‘s article on Dover and how improvements to conditions at the detention centre don’t make up for the fundamental injustices experienced by those detained there – “soft furnishing don’t hide the bars

none of this hides the fact that detention centres are places for imprisoning people. The people detained see the same locks, bars and security searches as a prison. The detention centre management will therefore always be fighting a losing battle in dressing this place up as something other than a prison. The illusion that this is ‘detention’ rather than ‘prison’ helps both the Prison Service running it and the British public who have voted for it cope with the brutality of imprisoning people with no time limit. It does little to ease the pain for those subjected to it.

We also heard from Joe, who was detained in Dover for three years, and describes it as a “place of mental torture”.

Also on the blog, Waging Peace wrote about their experience at the House of Commons when parliament debated immigration detention last month.  And we heard from Gemma, on how detention affects communities in Nottingham, a long distance from the a physical site of detention but with the threat of detention never far from people’s minds.    There was also a great event on indefinite detention in Bristol, which you’ll hear more about later in the tour!

We heard music and spoken word from people currently or previously detained in Dover, thanks to Music in Detention.

Many of the tweets reminded us that the grim realities of the detention centre are a sharp contrast to the beautiful countryside nearby (just like when we visited The Verne).


Out of sight, out of mind?

We again ended the week with a live Q and A, this time with Grzegorz who is currently held in Dover.  Thank you to everyone who sent in questions, and for Grzegorz for sharing his thoughts with us.

I was in Dover IRC for three years. It is a place of mental torture.

This blogpost is part of ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ – a Detention Action series which featuring the reflections of those with direct experience of detention, or of working with people in detention. This piece was written by Joe from the Freed Voices group especially for Unlocking Detention, which this week looks at Dover IRC in Kent.


I was in Dover IRC for three years.  It is a place of mental torture.

You go through four separate gates before you enter Dover IRC and I got more and more scared with each one we passed through. The first gate is the big stone arch and there are two officers who take a movement order from the driver of the van; the second gate is attached to a small office. I remember a small lady coming up and running a metal detector over the car before coming into our van and asking me to confirm my name; gate number three is a big metal structure and the driver got out and signed some paperwork before we went on; at the last gate they just waved us through.

I as put in Deal House in Dover IRC and all you could see when you looked out of the window as the sea. You felt you were on the edge of a nation, sitting on the border. Sometimes you would get French signal on your phone or French stations on the radio.

As a survivor of torture I went into Dover IRC with existing mental health issues. The lack of a time limit made these worse. You can’t look forward. It is a never ending sentence – a life sentence – only I had not committed a crime.

The female officers were supportive at Dover IRC. They would encourage you to keep going. Sometimes they would smile. But many of the male officers at Dover were rude. It was normal to hear them shout ‘go back to your country!’ They demonised us. I think it made it easier for them to do their jobs.

We were dependent on one hair clipper for 100 people in Dover. It would stay in the wing office and you’d have to give them ID to get it. Sometimes you had to wait for three weeks before it was your turn. We had no real way of cleaning the clippers, as nothing with alcohol in it was allowed inside. I developed lots of skin conditions on my head from sharing the clippers.

You don’t notice the seasons in Dover. You were in a cage inside and they made no difference to you. The only way you could really tell it was changing was by what clothes the guards wore when they came inside and out.

Unless you are working in Dover then you are locked up in for nineteen hours a day. All you can do is think. Think, think, think…you go crazy. It’s even worse in a single room. There is no-one to talk to. It is just you and your head.

I tried to take my life five times. But I thought about my kids and I couldn’t do it. They pulled me through detention.

There is a big pressure to work in detention, even though it is only for £1 an hour. Firstly, working in detention is the only way to leave your cell – otherwise you are there all day. Secondly, if you don’t work then the Home Office can say that you are ‘not complying’ with Immigration and this can count against your case. Working in detention is also a way to control people in detention. If you complained, you can lose your job. And if, for example, you have family far away then you have to work otherwise you cannot afford to call them.

I went for bail ten times but they turned it down because I had no address to go to. They also rejected my S4 application on many occasions. Finally, BiD helped me try to find out why I wasn’t being allowed free. I will never forget how I felt when I received the fax from them with the explanation. It said that the Home Office had been keeping me in Dover because I had committed murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. I had done none of these things. I had only claimed asylum. I hadn’t been charged with any kind of crime.

I think about Dover IRC every day. All the time. It as if it has merged with my traumas from back home to become one.

Soft furnishings don't hide the bars

This piece was written by Fraser Paterson, who works at Samphire. You can follow them on Twitter at @samphire_
Soft furnishings don’t hide the bars
Many people will know Dover as Britain’s main border with Europe and living here you are occasionally reminded on those clear days when you can see Calais. However, for Unlocking Detention we are focussing on the lesser-known side of the Dover border – its detention centre.
[Caption: Dover Immigration Removal Centre]
I manage the Detention Support Project at Samphire – a charity that provides emotional and practical support for people detained in Dover’s immigration detention centre. This detention centre holds 401 men and is run by the Prison Service. Samphire’s work involves coordinating a volunteer visitor scheme as well as our staff’s casework – aimed at helping people detained get access to legal advice and other support. We also have a project that runs a phone line and supports people released from detention nationwide.
The tide turns on public opinion
Media interest was revived in the Dover border this summer amidst fears of a ‘swarm of migrants’ coming from Calais. However, Dover detention centre has been at half-capacity since July in anticipation of the surge of refugees that never came. In August, Samphire spoke out against these misleading stories. However, sadly it took pictures of a drowned boy on a beach to shift public opinion and drive a movement to welcome refugees.
We saw the power of this change in opinion when we held our well-attended Facts Over Fear discussion event in Dover. Samphire is also supporting a Refugees Welcome Here demonstration on 17 October. This shows the number of people who are willing to be positive about immigration and refugees, even in a town just down the road from where Nigel Farage launched his anti-immigration election campaign.
Modest increases in the resettlement of refugees to the UK were a welcome result of this public pressure, but we are resettling only 4,000 refugees a year from a region hosting 4.1 million Syrian refugees. More importantly, there is little use in helping refugees abroad if we overlook those who reach our shores. This is one of several reasons why Unlocking Detention is important – detention divides our communities and is no way to welcome refugees.
The ‘not-a-prison’ paradox
Member of Parliament David Burrowes said in the detention debate on 10 September 2015 that:
“Detention centres are essentially prisons with soft furnishings and some plants”
However, in comparison with the other detention centres, Dover detention centre is further hampered by its Napoleonic era buildings that can’t help but give you a sense of creeping dread as you enter. This was aptly put by the 2014 prison inspectorate report:
“Dover is probably the last custodial facility in Britain that is still surrounded by a moat.”
[Caption: Dover Immigration Removal Centre]
However, this gets to the contradiction of immigration detention. In response to inspection reports the Prison Service – who run the detention centre – have made a genuine effort to make the place less ‘prison-like’. Some ‘soft furnishings’ have been placed in the visits hall in place of the bolted down tables and a lot of the exposed brick as you enter has been plastered and painted. In addition, the Detention Centre Rules, recognising that people detained are not serving a criminal sentence, are more lenient than in prisons – allowing detainees to use mobile phones and wear their own clothes.
However, none of this hides the fact that detention centres are places for imprisoning people. The people detained see the same locks, bars and security searches as a prison. The detention centre management will therefore always be fighting a losing battle in dressing this place up as something other than a prison. The illusion that this is ‘detention’ rather than ‘prison’ helps both the Prison Service running it and the British public who have voted for it cope with the brutality of imprisoning people with no time limit. It does little to ease the pain for those subjected to it.
Just holding the keys: Detention of children and the mentally ill
It’s important to remember that the Prison Service, just like all of us, are trying to do a good job. None of us want to go to work feeling that we’re harming the world and the Prison Service officers in Dover are no different. This is seen in the ‘not a prison’ paradox but it is also seen in the ‘just holding the key’ justification.
This is illustrated by the 13 year old boy I met recently – he was detained for three weeks in Dover detention centre. This was a result of a catastrophic failure of the age assessment process which should never have allowed his detention. After I met him, I left the visits hall shaking a little at seeing someone so young, so small and so afraid detained with adults. His eyes had welled up as he spoke to me.
As upsetting as it was, it didn’t surprise me. Last year the Refugee Council wrote of errors in age assessment that lead to children detained in Dover and this child was a sad reminder that progress is not being made. We referred the child to the Refugee Council and helped him get out of detention. However, what mystified me at the time was that no staff in the detention centre had questioned the Home Office’s age assessment – why no officer protested when they looked at this boy and thought of their own child.
When I raised this with the management of the detention centre I was told that the Prison Service cannot question people’s detention – no matter how young. The Prison Service, as with the private detention service operators, are in the battle for contracts. It’s for the Home Office to choose who to detain, it’s for the contractor to hold the keys. The fact that no safeguard in detention operates as it should doesn’t factor into the equation – their existence gives everyone enough peace of mind to feel they’re doing a good job.
And it’s not just children, Britain detains torture survivors because the doctor who sees them face to face feels they’ve done their job when they report it to the Home Office. The caseworker at the Home Office will then reject that report without seeing the face of the person detained. We also detain people with severe mental illness and Samphire have seen this repeatedly over the last year. When Samphire have raised it as an issue we’re again told that the detention centre are only holding the keys. This leaves us in a battle to try and support a mentally ill person to both trust us and to interact effectively with a legal adviser.
[Caption: Sign directing people to the detention centre, Dover]
Taking responsibility
On all of these issues, we as voters and the Prison Service running the detention centre are lacking the same thing – responsibility. We are imprisoning people. Often those people are children, people who have suffered torture or the mentally ill. It’s not enough to say that you’re just holding the keys, just as it’s not enough to say that you didn’t vote for this – we all need to take the responsibility to change it.

Psychological weapons used against detainees

This blog post was written by Abdelhay Tali, who has experienced immigration detention, and originally appeared on his blog.

This is a thorny issue, through time and the acquisition of experiences; people learned that it is not necessary to do muscular effort and even without talking, one can persuade.

In Dover, methods are multiple, authorities have build and developed laws, trained wardens to reach good results. In addition to laws enacted by the authorities jailers also develop their own tactics which they add to what they have learned. It’s experience, and I have special appreciations for experience and its importance.


When arrived at the reception, phones will be confiscated and the detainees deprived of their use, I asked the jailers why? one of them told me it’s because of its camera, well, that makes you think that they do not want you to take pictures of the place. The matter is confiscation itself, perhaps before the advent of phones that contain a camera, they used to confiscate them to not record any voices…

You should understand, as a detainee, and before leaving the reception, that you do not deserve to have people rights, you are not a person that can be trusted by the community. With their uniforms, they also make you understand that they are protecting the community, protecting it from you.


Rumors are considerable weapons, even governments can tame and guide their people by using them, with the help of the media which pave the way, in Dover, there were rumors.

Well, it is simple and can be seen, to pass a rumor or an idea, the guards rely on the leader or the model, for every group or race has someone to whom everybody wants to talk, be present with, and be seen by others with.When this model speaks, most of detainees respect him and believe him, or at least take his words into consideration. Somehow, a guard passes the idea, his or authority’s, passes it to a leader, and this one, involved or not, marketed it within his group, whether this group is Asians, Africans or people from non-member countries in the EU. (After the entry of some Eastern European countries that are relatively poor to the European Union, is no longer a need for Asians and Africans to stay. And what I noticed in Dover is those posters and guidance on the walls that were written in multiple languages, but the nationalities in the center were somewhat different, it seems that these languages posters have not been reviewed since the financial crisis of 2008, there are languages that must be added, and others must be removed.)

A few days before going home, I received a rumor about a Lady scouring the place to take information from and about the detainees to provide the authorities with it, detainees used to say (she is with them), this sentence shows that there were two camps, or they thought that there are two camps, and this was one of the most important observations that I’ve noticed, perhaps thinking about two camps aroused because of human feelings, and perhaps it was created because of a rumor.

I headed towards her and I asked her about her work and role in Dover, she turned out to be from one of the universities and a part of her research was getting interviews and information from removal centers. I learned that day that rumors weapon is important and effective, but also shows what scare its users.

Your English Is Good

I have been told this sentence by many jailers during the three first days in detention, in an ordinary place and normal times I probably wouldn’t care that much, but in detention you feel like your whole body, spirit and mind are together, and your awareness is ON all the time. the first thing that would spring on anybody’s mind is that they wanted to use me to do some tasks, as they were giving 6 pounds/day to detainees to do a job, but then you thought that maybe it is not as simple as that, maybe there is something else.

I wasn’t able to discover why I’ve been told that all the time by all those people, because the CARRY ON thing had happened before I could reveal the secret, and of course, they all stopped talking to me after that. Well perhaps it’s not that big a deal.

It looked a bit like this

Deal House, it was the name of the building I was living in, I moved from Sandwich after living there for a couple of days with 4 other people in a room, they were all smokers and I’m not one, so I moved. in Deal they suggested to go and register in education to learn how to use a computer and/or to cut somebody’s hair, they were very looking down on their education system while they were explaining it to the detainees, it was as they were saying: ( you are just sitting all the day, why don’t you go there to kill some time?)

If you go to the office in Sandwich house, you’ll find on the left of the TV a wooden box that looks like a prison cell, inside that cell there is a happy looking monkey, wearing the usual black and white prison uniform.

If asked why? they can not give an answer good enough to convince even themselves. At the end, we can’t blame those jailers, they have been taught to be like that. This monkey is surely there to be giving a clear message, and it’s definitely giving more than one.

Looking beyond the border in Dover

By Fraser from Samphire.  Samphire are a member of the Detention Forum.

Dover Immigration Removal Centre stands above the town of Dover on its Western Heights, holding around 400 detainees. I work for Samphire, a charity in the town of Dover which provides emotional and practical support to those detainees in Dover and to ex-detainees nationwide.

Dover: on the cliffs

Perched on this hill facing the English channel, the weather plays a large part in the experience of detainees in Dover detention centre. On good days the sun splits through the wire and the fences and it feels airy and relatively bearable. You can see France sometimes, although that is easier to appreciate when your stay is for an afternoon rather than months or years. But in winter, the wind whips the rain into your face and your thoughts are not of France but of staying warm and dry.

The detention centre is built around a set of fortifications originally built to defend the country against Napoleon (complete with a moat). This, together with its location so close to France, makes it an easy metaphor for how many Dover residents see the UK’s immigration system – an outpost defending against foreign hordes. However, that metaphor ignores the complexities both of Dover and the detention centre that stands above it.

Long Stay irc signThe detention centre is not a simple processing point for those who come off the boats from Calais. In reality, most detainees we meet have been transferred there from another centre, or have been detained at one of their weekly signing appointments with the Home Office. Many have been in the UK for years and some for decades.

For many, particularly the stateless and unreturnable, they can face an arduous shuffle around the detention system that can take years with no time limit or sentence to count down to. For them Dover is anything but a point of arrival or departure.

Dover: in the town

Down in the town itself, tourists passing through Dover from France only glance at the picturesque Dover Castle perched on the white cliffs to the East as they drive through a town unable to thrive on its tourist attractions. So it’s little surprise they’re not aware of the detention centre hidden from sight on the hill to the West.

That oversight extends to most of the town’s residents as well. In this part of the country the most innocuous conversations turn to the topic of immigration with bewildering speed yet there seems little interest in the 400 migrant residents that Samphire work with. In our work and personal lives we hear the same views on migration that have been entrenched and reinforced by the media despite the fact that the truth of those affected by the immigration system stands so close to the residents. It’s hard not to feel that the more striking border is not between Calais and Dover but within Dover itself.

Between two Dovers: Samphire’s work

White-Cliffs-of-Dover1Since 2002 Samphire have organised for members of the local community to visit detainees in Dover to help ease the loneliness and stress inherent in immigration detention. We’ve then brought our experience the other way and we raise awareness in the local community using the insights gained from our work at Dover detention centre. In this way we hope to bridge the gap between these two sides of Dover.

Meanwhile Samphire’s Ex-Detainee Project provide support to many of those left in poverty and unable to work after release from detention. This serves as a reminder that detainees’ problems don’t end on release from detention – at which point fences and wire are replaced by electronic tags and the restraints of poverty.

We’ve also expanded our Detention Support work as the shrinking legal aid available and the complexity of the immigration and asylum system pose extreme challenges to the residents at Dover detention centre. We provide a link to solicitors and other services and we have a small Legal Project that tries to fill the increasing gaps in legal provision.

In the midst of this the Prison Service, who run the centre, express a genuine desire to maintain good conditions for detainees. However, we see in all areas of our work the toll immigration detention has on the wellbeing of detainees and their families. The difficulty of trying to maintain decency while detaining migrants indefinitely is something that we don’t see being resolved.

If you’d like more information about Samphire you can visit their website or follow them on twitter @samphire_