Life in Detention

Although most detainees speak some English, they find it difficult to read documentation relating to their case or understand the signs around the removal centres advertising courses or events. Many are confused about why they are detained and nobody knows how long they will be there. Even with the widespread availability of mobile phones, not everyone is able to maintain contact with their families and, though centres arrange family-day visits, few take this option. Detainees are often unable to obtain an effective immigration solicitor. Fewer and fewer are entitled to legal aid. Many are frustrated by the limited amount of paid work and education in detention, particularly if they have served a prison sentence elsewhere during which they have taken advantage of a wide range of courses and programmes. Health care remains a source of great anxiety (HMIP 2011; Bosworth and Kellezi 2012, 2013a).

Compounding matters, life in detention, at least in terms of the formal provision of activities, is limited. IRCs offer very little to do, keeping people in idleness, preparing them neither for return nor release. There is almost no paid work other than cleaning or serving food. In each centre I visited a core group of detainees were actively involved in art and craft classes and the gym, but they were the exception. Most detainees while away their time in their rooms watching television or sleeping. Steve explained:

I go late night asleep, yeah, watch the telly till three o’clock. Get up half past eleven, that’s half the day gone. Then I have my food, then I just go in the library, read every single paper. Then go on internet for hour or so. And that’s about it. And chat on the phone. (Pakistan BH)

Unsurprisingly, many detainees complained of being bored. Others, however, felt that additional options would make little difference to them. ‘I cannot do anything each day’, Stone commented, ‘because am just thinking about my [immigration] case’ (Sri Lanka CH). Such concerns, they recognized, made it hard to forge a united ‘inmate community’ familiar to prison sociologists (Sykes 1958; Sparks, Bottoms, and Hay 1996; Crewe 2009). ‘Immigration issues fill our minds’, Storm pointed out, ‘so each man is alone’ (Eritrea CH).

Matters are made worse by a lack of clarity over the reason for detention. Officially, foreigners are confined to expedite their documentation, removal, and/ or deportation. Whereas the UKBA presents this facilitation in utilitarian and bureaucratic terms, detainees frequently describe their detention as punitive and unexpected (see also Leerkes and Broeders 2010). Some were arrested when they reported as normal to the UKBA, adhering to the terms of their asylum case. Others were seized when the immigration authorities were looking for someone else. Those who came from prison had finished their sentence and were not always aware that they were subject to deportation proceedings. Even those who acknowledged that detention had been a known risk, given their lack of immigration status, challenged the length of their confinement, their conditions, or its efficacy: ‘I will just come back’, Samir announced. ‘Algeria is close to Europe’ (Algeria CB).

In trying to make sense of where they were, women and men looked for suitable comparisons. Some turned to the language of slavery: ‘why it always got to be black people locked up?’, Lexi demanded angrily (Jamaica YW). In this view, detainees were critical of the interdependence between the state and the private custodial companies, and the irony that they had been unable to work legally in the community, but were expected to serve food or clean in the detention centre. More commonly, in response to their material environment, staff and detainees compared their experiences in detention to prison. Designed with the logic ofprison architecture, or reused former penal institutions, they are run by staffwho work for the same companies that incarcerate offenders. How the institutions measured up, however, was far from consistent.

For some, they were effectively the same. Housed together in institutions redolent of penal power, with cells, uniformed staff, and razor wire fences, it is no surprise to hear the constant refrain, ‘I feel like I am in prison’, across all IRCs. Yet, for others, being in prison would have been preferable. Steve explained:

In the prison, everybody know their bird, they’re doing their things, we don’t talk about it. Everybody got their work, you understand. Everybody put their head down. Somebody [with] long bird, they know they’re staying in the prison. You understand—you know what your date coming and you’re going home. Detention centre, like you think ‘What’s happening to me? When I gonna go home?’ [There] is no fixed time limit or anything ... thing drags on and on and on. (Pakistan BH)

As Steve appreciates, prisons, however painfully, offer a predictable life. They are, for him at least, recognizable in their form and content.

Yet, there were some good things about detention, he said: ‘Like you out at half past six till half past eight in the evening. And you have all the fax, internet. You can phone, and your kids can send you picture on your email address, all that.’ Another man, who had served a prison sentence ‘behind the door’ in an overcrowded London prison (ie who had been locked in his cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week) agreed. Life in Brook House was much easier, Turis claimed: ‘It is better here, like they are not lock everyday, a complete hours lock. That’s the difference and another difference is that here is use the mobile and communication is a bit better than prison’ (Pakistan BH). Whatever their opinion of detention, each of these men relied on a comparison with the prison to understand their confinement (Kaufman and Bosworth 2013). The detention centre, they suggest, makes no sense without the prison.

Such a view recurs in the staff interviews. Custody officers are, if anything, even less clear about where they are working and what their jobs entail. Few of those I interviewed had sought a career in detention. Most had simply stumbled into the work due to redundancy or boredom with their previous employment. They came from a range of occupations including retail, factory, and the armed forces. On a few occasions they had not realized what they were applying for, mistakenly thinking they were applying for a job in another part of the company. For some, working as a detention custody officer (DCO) was intended to be a launching pad for a better- paid and more secure position in the police or prison service. While others eschewed the prison altogether, both in terms of their own career plan and in relation to removal centres, it was, as with the detainees, always a defining comparator.

Officially, the duties of a DCO are ‘to prevent escape, to prevent, deter or report on an unlawful act, to maintain good order and discipline, and to attend to a detainee’s well-being’ (UKBA 2011). Although this statement emphasizes security, placing ‘well-being’ last on the list of responsibilities, many officers asserted a different balance of priorities, with one member of the senior management team at Yarl’s Wood, Scot, going so far as to claim that ‘care is more important than security’ (SMT YW). Others, lower down the staff hierarchy, agreed, making it clear that security was not the heart of their job, as they imagined it might be in prison. Landon claimed: ‘Those officers who treat them like prisoners don’t work. You need to treat them like human beings. What they need is someone to talk to. Talk to them like you would talk to your friends’ (DCO TH ).[1]

‘Our main job’, Stan asserted:

is to, you know, support them, giving them an ear hole when they wanna talk, proverbial shoulder to cry on, so it’s just being there for them, reassuring them that, you know, this isn’t a prison, you know, we’re, we’re there, as I said, not just to lock doors but to help them. (DCO YW)

In addition to offering such emotional support, Stan explained, officers spend a lot of time engaged in practical assistance, sending faxes, and trying to communicate across languages and cultural divides to an anxious and vulnerable population. In the library, for instance, he describes, there are folders listing:

legal representation, different companies that deal with their type of cases like the immigration and stuff like that, so you know, then they pick out half a dozen or more of them, we fax the correspondence to these people and then we’re there to do the communication for them, like they give us a fax, we send it off, when the fax comes through, it goes in their appropriate pigeon hole and when they come into the office and ask if they got any faxes then we, you know, if we got them, then we give them to them, same as any other letters and correspondence they get, we hand them out. ... so yes, support and ... if we can’t answer their questions then we find out someone who can. (DCO YW)

On the one hand this representation of the work of a DCO was clearly self- justifying. Who could criticize a custody officer for trying to help? On the other hand, Stan’s lengthy account illuminated an important paradox within the centres that generated considerable ambivalence among custodial staff: many detainees seek legal remedy to get out of detention. The individuals who are charged with assisting them in pursuing these remedies are also those who must keep them securely in detention—the DCOs. Under these circumstances, it becomes more understandable why some staff members disagreed with the official emphasis on security, seeking to craft a more nuanced understanding of their labour.

Just as detainees equated themselves to prisoners, many staff compared themselves to prison officers. Generally in this comparison they came up short, complaining that their pay and prestige were lower and their job more burdensome. Most commonly, and in some tension with their alleged commitment to care, staff frequently complained about the unavailability of formal sanctions. Though, at the time of the research, most IRCs operated with an ‘incentives and privileges’ scheme, whereby detainees lost access to certain items if they broke detention centre rules, there are no ‘adjudications’ in IRCs, and no sentences that can be imposed to maintain order. While detainees can be removed from association, they are usually only held in segregation for up to 24 hours. Even then, their removal has to be authorized by the UKBA contract manager; the power of the custody officer rests solely in the demand for punishment, they cannot enforce it. Detainees considered ungovernable are removed to prisons (Kaufman and Bosworth 2013).

On occasion, staff attempted to articulate what their job entailed in terms that were not punitive. According to Roby, who had worked in Yarl’s Wood for a decade:

I’ve always maintained you should never use prison and detention in the same sentence because they’re very far removed from each other. You have to treat these people who have committed no crime according to the law with the, the, the dignity that they deserve; it’s as simple as that. We, we shouldn’t be compared to prison.

As he tried to explain why, however, his reasoning faltered: ‘We’ve got locked doors, we’re a secure environment and we’ve got a big fence around us.’ Perhaps, ‘that big fence could come down’, he wondered, before concluding somewhat inexplicably, ‘on the other hand that big fence out there is to stop those people on the outside coming in’ (DCO YW).

As with the earlier testimonies from the detainees, staff found it hard to identify a vocabulary for understanding their work and its rationale in terms that were not penal. When asked about this relationship, one senior uniformed member of staff suggested that the distinction between the two institutions (and thus the appeal of the positive comparisons), lay in the prison’s common-sense and widely held[2] moral and legal justification: ‘I can’t say for certain but perhaps in prison there is this underpinning thing, “You’ve broken the law” ’, Lela observed, ‘whereas here, you know, that’s softened’ (DCM YW). Whereas criminal law offers a common- sense justification of incarceration, for this woman at least, immigration law lacked such impulse.

Ambivalence about the justification of detention went further. Even in the UKBA, in remarkable contrast to its official rhetoric and policies, staff at high levels in the administration expressed doubt about the legal framework that underpins and justifies such places: ‘It’s not like they’re real offenders’, one senior civil servant told me; ‘It’s just, you know, they might have worked without a passport or something’. That such confusion emanates from all levels of the institution, from detainees to DCOs and immigration officers, provides compelling evidence of the legitimacy deficit with which removal centres operate. At the same time, it is not clear that IRCs are in any immediate danger of being closed down or reformed. They are not, in other words, in crisis.

While some suggest that reforms simply await a bigger, more dramatic ‘catastrophe’, as an ex-IRC manager cynically put it, such an expectation is premised on an assumption that legitimacy matters. The current situation is simply not bad enough; the crisis has not been reached. Yet, what would it take to reach this tipping point? Or is the notion of ‘crisis’, with its inward gaze on life in detention, a false trail? Whereas prison scholars argue that there is a close relationship between the interior life of the prison and its external legitimacy (Sparks, Bottoms, and Hay 1996; Liebling 2004), this relationship simply is not as clear in detention centres. Not only do many aspects of a person’s experience of detention rely on decisions made elsewhere (by the UKBA or other nation states), but, in a system where the vast majority of people without immigration status are not detained, the very justification of removal centres itself is unclear. Either those in detention are a special case for whom only a custodial environment will suffice—and there is no compelling evidence for that claim—or there is a profound gap between the operation of these institutions and their purpose. That gap troubles the assumption inherent in much criminological literature that we can understand what custodial institutions are for by examining what they are like (Crewe 2009). It also draws into question whether legitimacy is at all essential to the system of immigration detention.

  • [1] Though foreign nationals are meant to be ‘risk assessed’ by the Home Office before being placedin detention, the IRC estate has no official security classification system. Three male establishments,Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, and Brook House, are built to ‘category B’ prison security standards, andso tend to house more ex-prisoners than some of the alternative centres.
  • [2] Though not undisputed (Mathiesen 2006; Sim 2009).
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