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.     
The Verne has been a place of detention for well over a hundred years.  In 2014, it was changed from an adult prison to an IRC capable of housing up to 580 male detainees, although still run by HM Prison Service. The Verne Visitors Group (VVG) was initiated as a response to this development, and has built up a group of around 30 visitors. We have also initiated a programme of public awareness of the realities of immigration detention to address the distortions propagated by media reports and as a result of the government’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’.  In early October 2017, the Home Office announced out of the blue that The Verne would be closing as an IRC and reverting to a prison.
For the purposes of Unlocking Detention, it is helpful to convey some of the particular characteristics of The Verne. In one sense, its location is thoroughly consistent with the ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ strategy deployed by the Home Office to reduce public awareness of the realities of immigration detention. Yet at the same time, it could hardly be more visible to the regular streams of cars, walkers and super-fit cyclists who go through the intimidating access tunnel and pass right under its massive walls. So the conundrum has been “Do people know what goes on behind these walls? Do they even want to know? And if not, why not?”
In the national context, The Verne’s isolated location has made the experience of detention even more harmful than it is elsewhere.  A succession of reports have emphasised how the long, complicated and expensive journey involved in getting there impacts on visiting rates, leading to an even greater sense of separation from their families, friends and local communities. Time and again, our visitors have seen how this extra factor exacerbates the already appalling effects of indefinite detention. So as a group, our primary objective has always been to listen to, empower and support detainees and to offer a friendly point of contact with the outside world.
Moreover, the location has had another, perhaps even more pernicious effect. Local legal firms lack the kind of specialised expertise necessary for immigration/asylum/detention cases – and have not shown any enthusiasm about acquiring them. Those legal firms from outside the area which do have the necessary expertise are constrained by the cuts in legal aid, along with the time required to undertake the kind of actual face to face meetings which can be essential in complicated cases. So despite the steadfast commitment of Detention Action through its monthly casework sessions, of BID, Medical Justice and other agencies, The Verne has been a ‘legal desert’ throughout its existence.
The cumulative effect of these factors is described by one of the founder members of the VVG as follows:

Frustration, disempowerment and deterioration in morale have been common elements in the different people I have visited over three years, caused by the fact of detention, the impasses, delays, muddles and misrepresentations – deliberate or not – that are the day to day reality of nearly every individual case and the Home Office’s and judicial system’s response to it. Above all, there is the limbo of uncertainty about the length of detention, and the remoteness of contacts with those involved with their case. Immigration detention for alleged immigration irregularities is for administrative purposes, detainees who have committed no crimes are humiliated by being effectively imprisoned, those who have committed crimes have already served their time and are still not free.

The complementary activity of our group has been to challenge the prevailing attitudes about immigration and detention in the local Dorset community. Part of this has always been just to talk to friends, local colleagues, in the pub, about immigration detention and why we have chosen to be visitors. Our widely shared experience of this is meeting initial incredulity, especially around indefinite administrative detention –“Surely the government can’t do that!” This kind of conversation at least provides a starting point; on a more organised level, our public meeting in Dorchester on ‘Stolen Lives’ in February this year,  where Giles Fraser from the Guardian spoke,  attracted a standing room only audience.  This demonstrates that despite the challenges, there is potential for change. As another of our visitors has pointed out, it is essential to get across the message that:

People don’t fit neatly into boxes. They are always more than a failed asylum seeker, a visa overstayer, a foreign national prisoner, sometimes they are two or three of those at the same time. I have met many ‘foreigners’ who were not so foreign at all, having spent most of their live in the UK, people whose asylum application kept being refused only to be accepted after years of suffering. Students who had to stay after the visa expired because they were afraid to go back. All those categories are blurry. They are not just migrants, they have families, they are loved, they are full of memories and sometimes regrets, some experienced suffering or homelessness, some are victims of torture and abuse, some of them are ill, some are great story tellers, some become friends.

So where is the VVG at this point in Unlocking Detention?  Our members are determined to carry on visiting until the very end but our future is as yet unsettled. One point of agreement is that we will not simply be giving up.  As our group photo shows, ‘Verne Closes – Unjust Detention Continues’. And as the moving interview with ‘Juan’ on Monday of this week expresses it;

I am pleased to hear that the Verne is closing.
But for those of us that have already experienced it, it will always be open.
This is the real meaning of indefinite detention.
Detention is a demon that stays with you forever

Ruth Jacobson is a Committee Member of the Verne Visitors Group, but has written this blog in her individual capacity.

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.  
It started with an exploding goat in a dry and dusty land, and now this citadel in the mist is more of a home than the occupant’s land of birth. Within the damp ancient walls are more stories than the very stones that make up this fortress… and many will stay there undisturbed shrouded in pain and fear, leaving behind only a fervent wish, as the door closes behind those that get to leave, that they will remain undisturbed.
You do not see the freedom of the sunset on the ocean. Do you hear the constant roar of the sea as it throws itself upon the stony beach so far below? Rattling stones like the jailors keys and leaving abandoned dreams upon it’s shore.

I look up to see the blind bird upon the ramparts, swathed in the sinister glint of razor wire, a memory of another far-off place for me. What hopes, and dreams are stranded here strangled by the lioness of fear?
And yet we nod to the jailers who have no real prisoners. Laugh in the garish airy room, a hint that this is a façade – that we all will maintain. Yet for you this is an escape of sorts, from the dark and oppressing innards of this grisly fortress. Never knowing what the clang of a door may portend, the visitor’s lounge offers a temporary reprieve.
So, we don’t always talk about the silent birds that wheel so far above, but laugh the deep belly laughter that always seems at odds with the desperation of those around us; but it is your escape from the dread and anxiety that is your shadow. Finding humour in the long fall of the coke bottle from the inanimate machine that reluctantly dispenses refreshments lurking in the corner. Our ritual.

Sometimes we wave out the window at my life waiting patiently for me out on the grass, in the sunshine, but mostly we talk of life lessons, and things that don’t matter or matter so much that I shed a tear. But you are learning how easily I shed tears in the face of your deep scars and your openness in attempting to heal them.
The sticky tables, the bored watchers and always the bright chairs with their layer upon layer of stories, lives and journeys – none started here and few end here.
One day you will stand on the ramparts and experience the openness of the ocean and the freedom of the wind and you will step away into a different future.
But until then, I will make the journey up the hill to this other world where people are forgotten and the black shirts hold all the power. Where the flag taunts all those that enter here.
The journey back down the hill is always easier. Back down to the island that unwittingly hosts a cruel, cultural diversity that cannot hope ever infiltrate its shores.
 
 

'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.
 
The Verne is closing but for those of us who experienced it, it will always be open
By Juan, from Freed Voices.  
 
Last week I had an appointment with my therapist.
I see them for PTSD.
I have trauma from my time in the Verne.
 
As I left my therapy, I searched for the address of where I had to go for a volunteer interview but I soon realised I had lost it.
I went home to get it and on my way, I passed through a park.
I was stopped by a police officer.
He asked me if I smoked or sold drugs.
It was 11am.
I said no.
He asked why I was here at this time.
I explained I was coming from my therapist.
He asked for my status.
I explained my case was ongoing.
He said he needed to search me and took my I.D.
I said I wanted to call my solicitor.
He said there was no need.
He made a quick telephone call and then he said that we would need to go to the police station.
He said the Home Office would come and see me there.
 
In that moment, I felt an extreme panic.
For a second, I thought I would die there and than in the park.
All I could think about was the Verne.
I felt the walls were closing in on me again
I felt like I was falling down, down, down, down…
 
I have been to the Verne twice before.
Altogether, I was detained there for three months.
All I knew was that I would have preferred to die in that park then go back .
 
The officer put me in handcuffs like a criminal.
Even now my wrists are burning.
They took me to the police station.
They took my belongings.
They did not let me call my solicitor.
They took a police photo of me and my fingerprints.
They put me in a small cell with a bright, UV-light.
 
After two hours, an immigration officer came in.
He made the room feel very cold.
He said I had not complied.
I explained my medical situation.
He said he needed to speak to his superior.
He said one of two things would happen:
One – I would be released.
Two – I would be taken back to detention.
 
Just thinking about the Verne makes me think of death.
So many people have died inside detention – 31 now.
The Verne is a cemetery for hope.
I don’t see how I would survive a fourth time in detention.
You are cut off from the rest of the world there.
You are completely isolated.
You are waiting to die.
It is inhumane.
It is a torture.
 
When the immigration officer said detention, my heart started beating very, very fast.
I starting to crash.
My head went blank.
My legs started to feel very weak.
I lost control.
I felt like an old cancer had returned to my body after a period of remission.
 
I was in this kind of state for the next two hours before they released me.
I went to a friend’s house that night.
He hugged me the whole night I was so scared, I could not stop shaking.
I did not want to go out on to the street again.
 
I am pleased to hear that the Verne is closing.
But for those of us that have already experienced it, it will always be open.
This is the real meaning of indefinite detention.
Detention is a demon that stays with you forever.
 
I am a man and I don’t know how it is to walk alone as a women in the street but I have many female friends and when they explain their fear, it sometimes feels familiar to me.
When you have experienced detention, you walk every day with the experience on your back.
It is a trauma that follows you everywhere.
You are always looking behind you.
 
I think a part of me died in detention.
I am different person now.
The abuse in that factory changed me – I have a different identity.
Sometimes I can say ‘ok, pick yourself up now, keep going, move forward.’
Other times, I stop and say ‘wow, I really miss who I used to be.’
 
Detention does not just change the way people see migrants.
Detention also changes the way that migrants see ourselves.
That is the horror of detention, for me.
 
I am finding strength in the community of people around me and the other members of Freed Voices.
These kind of triggers release a lot of emotions and they are a family that can share and absorb them.
They are helping me find my feet again.
For how long, I don’t know.
 
All we can do is speak out – about the pain, and the cruelty, and the alternatives.
All we can do is speak out – about the pain, and the cruelty, and the alternatives.

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.  
Detention centres feel permanent.  There is nothing like the experience of visiting a detention centre, confronting the walls and locked doors and razor wire, to give a doomy sense of inevitability.
All the more so when the detention centre you are visiting is The Verne, a three hour train journey and half hour taxi ride from the scrutiny of Parliament.  Its symbolism could hardly be more crushing – after you leave the spectacular causeway of Chesil Beach, the taxi takes you onto the Isle of Portland, a seeming enclave of extraterritoriality.  A mile out into the Channel, inside the peak of the closest Dorset gets to a mountain, five hundred migrants are locked away.
It is a journey that Detention Action staff and volunteers have been making to hold advice surgeries every month for nearly four years, since it opened.
Yet last week, the Home Office quietly announced that The Verne will close by the end of the year.  It will revert to its former identity as a prison, less than four years after the Home Office instilled the extra razor wire to adapt it to detain migrants.  By January, every night around 500 fewer people will bed down to sleep or insomnia in a British detention centre.
Why is the Home Office closing its second largest detention centre?  The official explanation is that the detention estate is to be consolidated around the main airports. This is undoubtedly accurate – there was an aborted attempt last year to close the remote Dungavel detention centre in Scotland and replace it with a small short-term holding facility at Glasgow Airport.
But it isn’t the full story, unless consolidation is understood to also mean reduction.
Indeed, the then Immigration Minister last year promised that fewer migrants would be detained, for shorter periods.  It hasn’t happened, until now (although Dungavel closure would have helped, if planning permission hadn’t been refused).  But the political momentum for change has not gone away.
The Minister was responding the first review of welfare in detention by Stephen Shaw, ordered by then Home Secretary Theresa May following the scathing indictment of detention by a cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry.  Shaw did not mince his words, describing the treatment of mentally ill people in detention as ‘an affront to civilised values’.  Neither did he attempt to separate welfare from detention policy as a whole, condemning the scale of detention and the lengths of time migrants are held.
Unfortunately, since the former Minister’s statement, neither the numbers of migrants detained, nor lengths of detention, have gone down.  Detention remains unreformed.
It is an unsolved problem that has suddenly become a high profile political problem again, in the wake of the appalling abuse revelations of the BBC Panorama documentary on Brook House.  The sustained media focus on detention coincided with three more people dying in detention.  Last week, the High Court found unlawful an aspect of the Home Office’s flagship adults at risk policy, its main response to the criticisms of the Shaw Review.  And only yesterday, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission demanded an independent inquiry into the issues raised by the Panorama documentary, including the Home Office’s use of private contracts and the impact of indefinite detention, and threatened to launch its own investigation.
All of this is happening at the worst possible time for confidence in the detention estate, because Shaw has just begun his follow-up review of Home Office progress.  He is unlikely to be impressed.
This is ultimately a political problem for a Government that can ill afford any more political problems.  The follow-up Shaw Review was promised following unprecedented parliamentary pressure for wholesale detention reform during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016.  The Government was twice defeated in the Lords on amendments that would have introduced a time limit for the first time, in line with the rest of Europe.  Led by parliamentarians who had been involved in the inquiry, both Houses gave Ministers a thorough grilling.  Compromise amendments, introducing a time limit for pregnant women among other things, were accompanied by promises that detention reform was in hand, with Shaw providing the oversight.
So detention is now a real problem for the Home Office.  It cannot afford Shaw to conclude that nothing significant has changed, giving further encouragement to the Lords to derail the coming Brexit immigration bill.  It knows that the political pressure will not go away, having been cultivated over many years by the Detention Forum’s broad and durable civil society alliance.
Indeed, detention reform could end up being an object lesson for anyone doubting that passionate, principled parliamentarians can change anything.  Given that one or two other things have been happening in politics lately, it has been astonishing how our allies in Parliament from all the main parties have continued to keep up the pressure.
In politics, it is easy to win the argument and lose the war.  So often, momentum and small wins fail to add up to radical reform.  The coming months are an unprecedented opportunity to convert those wins into major and lasting change.  Immigration will not completely go away as a political hot potato, but we can begin to build a fairer and more humane system that doesn’t have to depend on damaging and routine immigration detention.  We have set out in our report Without Detention how this can happen.
But for any change to happen, people demanding that change still need to come together and build a much bigger voice to capture the attention of the government.  The ongoing Unlocking Detention is the perfect online opportunity – join us.
 

Week 2 of #Unlocked16: The Verne

This week, Unlocking Detention visited The Verne, perhaps the most isolated of the UK’s detention centres.
vernecliff
The Verne opened as a detention centre (“immigration removal centre”) in 2014, and has 580 bed spaces.  Only men are detained here.  The centre is on the Isle of Portland, off Weymouth in Dorset.
The Verne is notorious for its high usage of segregation, but it is also isolating in many other ways.
On Friday, we conducted a live interview with Mark who is currently detained in the Verne.  When asked what his first thoughts were on arrival at the Verne, Mark replied:


And the Verne’s beautiful setting is small comfort to those detained there.


Read the full interview with Mark
The Verne is the least visited detention centre depsite being one of the largest.


There are just 0.2 visits per detainee each month.  (The infographic below is from Phil Miller’s excellent article on The Verne here).
verne-visits


There are visitor groups working hard to combat this isolation – both the Verne Visitors Group and Detention Action regularly visit the centre.

The Verne’s History

The Verne has an interesting history …


The Verne remained a prison until 2014, when it became a detention centre, but still looks and feels like a prision (and is run by the Prison Service).
screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-12-32-21

Blog posts and articles

  • It was a week of great blog posts and articles, beginning with a piece by Mo who was detained for 12 months.  Read The Verne: Let my people go here.
  • Susannah Wilcox of Detention Action wrote a piece comparing the high use of segregation at The Verne with the indefinite isolation of detention.  Read The Verne: an exercise in societal segregation here.
  • Gayle Munro shed light on a little discussed aspect of detention – its chaplaincy regime – which you can read here.
  • Ben du Preez of Detention Action wrote a great blog post for the Border Criminologies blog, on how detention demands creative campaigning.  Read it here.
  • And thanks to Sam Grant of René Cassin, who wrote about Unlocking Detention for the RightsInfo blog.  Great that #Unlocked16 is reaching new audiences!

rightsinfo
 

Live Q and A with Mark, detained in the Verne

This week Unlocking Detention has been ‘visiting’ The Verne detention centre, in Dorset.  On Friday afternoon, Ben from Detention Action conducted a live interview with Mark who is currently detained there.
Ben alerted those following the Q and A that, as with last week, communication was going to be difficult – the remoteness of the Verne means there’s always a bad phone connection.
And the interview was going to be difficult in other ways too.  The interviewer knows Mark well. At one point he was going to join the Freed Voices group but was re-detained…back to The Verne.


The next question for Mark comes from Scottish Detainee Visitors:
sdvmark


Another question from Scottish Detainee Visitors:


window


The next question came from a participant at a recent workshop on Unlocking Detention run by Right to Remain in Cambridge, written about here.
flipflops
How many pairs of shoes do you have that are not flip flops? (asked someone who visits people in detention, so knows this is a common issue!)


Another question for Mark, currently detained in the Verne, arguably the most isolated of all detention centres in the UK:
nature


 

The Verne – an exercise in societal segregation

VERNEPICY
By Susannah Willcox, Advocacy Coordinator at Detention Action.
Trigger warning: suicide
In August this year, there was public outcry at the proposed introduction of a new Detention Services Order (DSO) on Rule 40 and Rule 42, the two detention centre rules that detail when it is ‘acceptable’ to place people in segregation or solitary confinement within detention. Spelling out guidance to detention centre staff, the DSO made it clear that this sanction could be applied even if medical advice explicitly warned that it would be ‘life-threatening’.
This news may have come as a shock to many but regrettably, segregation has long been a common occurrence across the detention estate (see Medical Justice’s excellent report on this). No more so than at the Verne detention centre in Dorset. The most recent HMIP report on the Verne found that 131 individuals had experienced solitary confinement in the last six months of the report’s writing. Its author, the then HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, lambasted the ‘the high use of separation’, concluding that ‘the separation unit environment was poor and used frequently…and [whilst the average time spent in solitary was 4 days] some detainees were held there for several weeks.’
Separation is clearly a theme when it comes to the Verne. People held there are already trapped in a very particular form of solitary confinement. The Verne is renowned for its stark geographical and social isolation, situated on the island of Portland, at arms-length from the local population of Weymouth, shut off from view in an old prison built by convict labourers in the 19th Century. Individuals detained there are incredibly difficult to reach, evidenced in the shocking statistic that they receive an average of 0.2 visits per month, compared to between one and three visits per month in detention centres elsewhere around the UK. They are separated from friends, family, solicitors, faith groups, NGOs and other support networks by the prohibitively long and expensive journey it takes to get there. And, unlike Rules 40 and 42, there is no time limit set on this form of segregation.
Their isolation is an indefinite reality.
Of course, those detained in the Verne share many of the same experiences as those held elsewhere around the detention estate – the crushing depression of indefinite detention, the frustration of not being able to speak directly to the Home Office decision-maker in charge of their case, the boredom of life behind bars. But in the Verne, this boredom, depression and frustration is compounded by a very real sense of remoteness.
Detention Action provides support to people detained in the Verne over the phone and through monthly face-to-face workshops. We speak to men whose children rely on them to take them to school, to cook them dinner, to help them with homework and to put them to bed. We speak to men who are the sole carer for a partner with a disability or debilitating mental illness. We speak to men whose children are born while they remain locked up in the Verne. We speak to men still reeling from the shock of being forcefully snatched and detained from their own beds, often in the middle of the night, sometimes in front of their young children. We speak to men who are numb or enraged by years spent ping-ponging around the detention estate, from centre to centre to centre, and then to the Verne. We speak to men who have fled trafficking or persecution and feel they can’t trust anybody, preferring instead to stay enclosed within their room.
Other than centre staff, in most cases the only contact these men have is with others fighting their own demons, making it difficult – if not impossible – for anyone to find the full support they might need. Particularly for those already struggling with poor mental or physical health, the Verne’s premium on isolation can be the proverbial final straw. We speak to men who try to take their own lives as a way out of the madness they find themselves in. We’ve spoken to men who, in some cases, have succeeded in doing so.
It can be deeply distressing to watch the pain caused by the separation of people from their family, friends and communities. One person we support often speaks about his two teenage children who are living with a family friend while he’s in detention. He worries about the same things as any other parent would. Who will help his son with his maths homework? Who will talk to his daughter about the dangers of drug use and unsafe sex? Who will help them to avoid getting caught up in gang culture at a young age, as he had? Another person fears for his safety in the Verne, having already experienced verbal and physical abuse from others in detention because of his sexuality. He talks of feeling a long way from his partner and the supportive LGBTI community he’d become a member of while living in Cardiff.
The children, partners and friends of these men are unable to visit them while they are detained at the Verne, further compounding the stress of their detention and ongoing immigration appeals. In some cases, a lack of visits is even said to weaken a person’s immigration case. It is hard not to be struck by the perverseness of a system that insists on family visits as evidence of strong ties to the UK and then locks people up in far-flung places it knows that their loved ones can never visit.
Such isolation helps no one – not the person detained, nor their friends and relatives, nor the communities they are torn from and, often, thrust back into with little warning. There is a wealth of evidence documenting the devastating impact of segregation on mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and yet detention centres like the Verne continue to operate, far removed even from those who know and care about what is happening.

The Verne: let my people go

The Verne
By Mo*, 12 months in detention**
Detention in the Verne is like being stuck in an island, in an island, in an island, in an island. Your cell is the centre. It is where I am most lonely, forever.
I have been in the Verne one year. I am the asylum seeker. No-one tell me anything about the process of detention. No one tell me I would be here very long time. No one tell me nothing. The most I get is the monthly report. Every time the same thing – ‘we are making enquiries’, ‘we are trying to get travel documents’, ‘we are investigating’, ‘we decide we still detain you’, excuse after excuse after excuse after excuse. Nothing clear. No path. No way out of the Verne.
They never bring me removal directions and I am here 12 months. No ticket, nothing. They know they cannot remove me. So why am I still here?  Don’t need to be locked up for them to find travel documents. And Verne is still a prison, for sure. It walks and talks like a prison. Big prison doors. Big prison walls. Big prison guards.
Here in the Verne, we say ‘we are a sardine tin in the sea’. It does not feel like UK. Or France. Or anywhere. We are lost.
The Verne has big effect on me. My physical body has been hit, I am feeling much weaker. I suffer from attacks – from guards and from other detained people who don’t understand people can be different. In my head, I am depression, anxiety disorder. I am stress, I am running wild. There is fear everywhere. If it is not for the deep sense of injustice I am feeling deep in my heart, I am kill myself long time ago. 100% this is about life in detention, 100%. Journey through asylum is of course very difficult, always, for everyone, but this…this is torture of the brain.
There are many people who should not be in the Verne. Many vulnerable people here. Mental health problems everywhere. My eyes keep dropping. I want to cry when I see what is around me. That government stop vulnerable people from detention is a lie. Here, all people has vulnerability. They should let us go.
Every time the library opens here, I am ready. I read the newspaper to keep my mind fresh. Sometimes I would read about detention.
Usually, when I read about detention I read about the taxpayer, the cost. They are not talking enough about the suffering, the abuse.
But this country is not like other countries. The politics at the moment, after Brexit – we are paying for it, the migrants. They say they locking up people only as last option.  All these people can’t be in detention for ‘last option’! 30,000 ‘last options’? Every year? I had legitimate Section 4 bail application and they stop it so they can keep me in here. Why?
They say I must stay inside for ‘public good’? Outside the Verne I am good. Outside the Verne I am myself. Outside the Verne I am healthy. Outside the Verne I volunteer. Outside the Verne, I know it’s not easy. But inside the Verne, everyone loses.
I have lost confidence in the system. There is no transparency. No independence. It is difficult to trust people who lock you up like monkey in a cage.
They can’t deport me, so why not they let me go?
Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!


The author’s real name has been changed to protect their identity.
** Since writing this piece, the author has been released from the Verne, their one year in detention – costing the author their mental health and the taxpayer £33,000 – seemingly serving no purpose whatsoever.
Picture credit: Patrycja Pinkowska

Visiting the Verne detention centre

We asked members of the Verne Visitors group to share their thoughts and experiences on visiting people at the Verne.  We were interested to hear what led them to start visiting, what they discovered when they started visiting, what they thought the hardest part of visiting was, and to describe their experiences a little. 

Verne

David

I started visiting in January this year.  I had heard about the Verne becoming an IRC (Immigration Removal Centre), and I had some friends who expressed an opinion that locking people up for administrative purpose was not a thing that a civilised society should do. So I thought I could find out about what was going on, and give some help to people.

I really had no experience of this sort of thing, so it came as a shock to find out the effect that indefinite detention can have on people.  The first chap I visited was educated and articulate, and had been active in his community in London.  But the time he was detained broke his spirit (not permanently I hope).  He became distressed and frustrated, to the extent of talking about ending it all.  We had interesting chats, as we had some common interests, but my overall feeling was of frustration that I was not able to give him much practical help, despite spending time communicating with various agencies in an attempt to help him get bail.  I learnt such a lot about his home country and the persecution he faced there, and I really got to understand his fear of being returned.  He would ask, and be interested, in what I did over the weekend, family outings, places I’d visited – but I was always so aware that he was stuck where he was.

The different people I have visited each have their own story, and have reacted to detention differently, but they share a sense of injustice.  I have learnt from them.

Verne

Judith

I started visiting because of the increasing unjust treatment of refugees.    I discovered that no two cases are alike, and that the laws regarding asylum are very complicated.

It’s difficult waiting upstairs for the detainee to arrive.  The visiting room is quite pleasant and spacious, with comfortable chairs and activities for children. There is no clock and, as sometimes you have to hand over your watch, it is difficult to time the visit.

I wonder – as it happens so often – why some detainees do not turn up.

Claire

I have always felt concerned about immigration rights in this country and when we moved to Weymouth recently and realised the prison we could see on Portland from our kitchen window had become an IRC, I couldn’t ignore it and had to get involved, especially as my dad was from Portland and had brought me up to work for equal rights and justice for all. I tracked down the visitor’s group and asked what they needed to help the detainees and they got back to me with a training date for potential visitors.

It is a total privilege to be allowed into the trust of a person detained and despite the terrible situation, feels like something precious.

It is pointless to look for logic in the Home Office’s decisions. Detainees have very few rights and most people have no idea of the ridiculous and inhumane things they have to go through.

Staff at the detention centre (Verne) appear to be doing their best in very difficult circumstances (hugely understaffed, no holidays, no proper breaks, no cultural training or languages, violence and mental health problems in detainees) and often, the left hand often doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Staff are often equally frustrated and baffled by Home Office decisions.

The hardest part?  Feeling helpless to enable a detainee out soon or reassure them this will happen. Having to listen to someone feeling desperate or helpless. Not being able to make things less complicated and frustrating for them. Waiting around while various officers try to work out where your detainee is/because the doors are broken/because the family in front of you is visiting for the first time with many bags and different officers are giving them conflicting orders/ because the officer forgot to ring for your detainee etc etc etc.

The visiting room is a large, light prison visiting room with bright multi-coloured soft comfy chairs, some paintings, a colourful childrens’ play area with toys, books and soft play on one side. There are separate cubicles used for solicitor’s meetings with detainees and a big desk for several guards with computer/phones etc, plus two other stations for guards. Overhead cameras filming everything. A toilet for men only (women and children/babies have to be let out through two locked sets of doors as toilet is downstairs). There is a kitchen which appears to be off limits for anyone except the officers, although there is supposed to be a detainee whose job it is to offer tea/coffee (not in my experience). Visitors have to buy drinks and snacks from three vending machines for themselves/families/the detainee they are visiting. Food and drink cannot be brought in from outside. If you stand in one corner, you can just see the sea! (Detainees generally cannot see outside the IRC grounds from their rooms but it is nearly surrounded by the sea).

This work is also very rewarding. When a detainee gets released/gets bail (even if you or he doesn’t understand why all of a sudden), it’s amazing. Although, sometimes, speaking to them once they’re out, it’s hard to hear how badly their mental health has been affected. Other times you get really happy endings which is lovely and detainees and ex-detainees are generally so grateful for any help, it’s very moving.

Sometimes it’s very hard to empathise with a detainee’s opinions/ethics/strongly held religious beliefs that seem to conflict with mine but I’m not there to argue. If I have a good, trusting, longer visiting relationship with them, I will banter and discuss their takes on different cultural mores. It’s certainly an education!

Verne 1

Joanna

I wanted to visit people detained in the Verne because I felt it important that people in detention have some support in the community.   I think the Verne is well run and the officers seem well trained and supportive, although I think the lack of a set time limit for the inmates is so frustrating for them that they cause problems for everyone.

The hardest thing is knowing that I can walk out into the open air and my detainee has to go back inside.

The visiting room is spacious, sunny and well furnished with colourful, comfortable chairs and pictures and children’s play equipment.  It is a pleasure to spend time in.

The hardest time was when my detainee texted me to say that the man in the closest cell to him had killed himself in the night.  Also I had to ask that somebody be put on suicide watch on my second visit. I believe he was well looked after.

Verne 3

Rachelle

What led me to start visiting:?  I have always been sympathetic to the plight of refugees and/or economic migrants in any case (all four of my grandparents came into this category).  I had in my early life been a prison teacher ( including at the Verne) so I had an idea what kind of environment the detainees were being held in and what that felt like if you had committed a crime, let alone if you hadn’t.

The things I discovered when I started visiting, that I perhaps hadn’t expected before, were how inefficient the whole system was. I expected it to be inhumane (which it is) and that the staff locally would struggle but on the whole do their best. I didn’t expect the system to be so chaotic and so hopelessly inefficient.

The hardest part of the visiting is the difficulty of offering hope to the detainee. One of them asked me about his rights and I had to explain to him that under our law he could be detained indefinitely. I think the “indefinitely” is the hardest part for them, as there appears to be no end in sight to the uncertainty.

The visiting room is large, I have never visited when it has been crowded, there is plenty of space for visitors and detainees to sit around brightly coloured and reasonably comfortable (new) armchairs. There are attractive pictures on the wall and there is a large children’s area with plenty of toys and books. There are two vending machines in the corner as you go in. These are a pain, they break down frequently or are not restocked, they do not give change and they are quite expensive as it is. Occasionally they have an orderly on duty in the little kitchen who can make cups of tea or coffee free of charge but he is not there very often and the detainees I have visited prefer Coke in any case.

My first time visiting The Verne

This piece is written by Rahwa Fessahaye, Advocacy Co-ordinator at Detention Action
The first time I went to Verne IRC was in November 2014, a few weeks after I had returned from maternity leave. I was curious to see the centre as, up until that point, Detention Action had only run workshops in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs. Dorset felt like a world away. As a Londoner, I am perhaps more tolerant than most when it comes to schlepping on public transport, but The Verne is almost as remote an IRC as it gets. Getting off the train at Weymouth in winter set the tone for what would prove a fairly bleak experience. The town has the faded glamour of a seaside resort that, with the advent of cheap holidays abroad isn’t particularly lively in the summer, let alone in more chilly temperatures. My colleague and I walked along road after road trying to find a chippy/café/anything that wasn’t closed.
Once we had found something to eat we took a taxi from Weymouth station to Verne IRC, and got talking to the driver, who was born and raised on Portland. He was pleased that HMP Verne had been converted into an IRC as the closure would have been disastrous for the local economy. We discussed our work and what we did – that we provide practical and emotional support to people in immigration detention, who are being held there indefinitely. The driver seemed utterly bemused that people could be kept in prison like conditions with no release date. It was the first he’d heard of it. Clearly what was going on inside the former prison hadn’t fully reached those outside.
Detention Action has spent the last 20 years working in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRC, and we also visit some clients in London prisons. And yet, there was something entirely unfamiliar and strange about visiting the Verne IRC for the first time. It is run by the prison service, and the process to enter is similar to what it was when it was a prison. It is a sprawling estate, across a huge area. It took us a while walking through various interlocking buildings and going up and down various external flights of stairs to get the canteen, where we were to hold the workshop. There usually is a frenetic energy whenever we visit other IRCS: people rush up to you and try to get their story out as quickly as they can, they jostle for slots to sit down and talk with us to see whether we can help. The pace in the Verne IRC was sedate in comparison. There was a slow dribble of individuals seeking help, all with specific appointment times, which had been allocated by the officers once they signed up to see us. The numbers attending on that day was low – a problem we don’t usually face in other centres.
The initial calm of the workshop was, however, deceptive. Most of those who came to see us were EEA nationals, who are not eligible for legal aid or for an address from the Home Office which they can use to apply for bail. The majority wanted one and/or both of these things. The atmosphere turned tense as understandably angry and frustrated individuals asked ‘well how can you help then?’ It was the first time in my five years at Detention Action that I had been at a workshop where the majority of attendees were EEA nationals. Suddenly the nature of what we were doing changed. One client asked us to fax a regional court in Romania asking them to send some documents to him – not a request we usually have but we were able to assist. Another man from Latvia had lost his phone during the period which he was held in a police cell and then later imprisoned. Immigration detainees have no access to social media. He accepted that he was likely to go back and seemed fairly OK with this – his main concern was that he wanted his family to know he was going back so they could help him get back on his feet. We were able to Facebook his sister with his new number, which led to them being reunited. It is often the smallest assistance which can make a big difference, as clients face such practical barriers in doing things that we all take for granted on the outside.
We are not lawyers, we are a specialist organisation who can only help certain immigration detainees. So whilst it can be frustrating for both the individual being detained and us when we cannot provide what they tell us they need, we are also in the fortunate position to provide at least some assistance to those people in Verne IRC who want it. Namely, we can listen, we always listen. We try to absorb the frustration and the anger. We listen when someone tells us that they want to hurt themselves, when they feel there is no point in living.
Many of the individuals we work with cannot find a solicitor at Verne IRC due to unacceptably huge delays in getting an appointment. It is a similar size to Harmondsworth IRC and yet has half the number of slots available. To add to the isolation, it seems as though video link appointments to see a lawyer may be introduced. So not only are you stuck in a remote part of the country, where your family struggle to ever visit, but now you have to explain your life story over a TV monitor.
More recently we have seen a broader demographic at Verne IRC, including many asylum seekers at the end of the road. Many with deportation orders, struggling to get help. What do you do if you get a removal ticket and cannot get to a lawyer in time? I haven’t been given a satisfactory answer to that. People here often beg to be moved to another centre, as they cannot access legal advice easily. Sadly, this is the reality of the Verne.
I have often wondered why the uptake of services at Verne IRC is lower than elsewhere. Do those incarcerated there feel that they are so remote, so invisible, that nobody cares? If I felt that Weymouth was a bleak experience (and I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased), I cannot even imagine how it feels to be locked away, up in the hills of Portland, on the edge of everything.