The detention centre was, hands down, one of the most frightening places I’ve ever been to. This was because of the sheer nastiness, anger and self-satisfaction of the staff – civilians and guards alike. It was horrifying, a sinister place, and it was clear to my colleague and me that nobody who worked there had even one dreg of basic human feeling for the individuals they were detaining or any understanding of, or interest in, what those people had survived.
The staff were suspicious even before we arrived, asking for written assurances that we wouldn’t name them or hint at where the institution was. The staff referred to the people inside as detainees and asked that “the workshop content is suited to a detainee context.” I replied via email, “I can confirm and guarantee this, having spent many weeks working with asylum seekers and refugees, a large proportion (about 50%) of whom had themselves been detained or imprisoned or both…I understand the sensitivity required to work in such environments and the necessity of not pushing individuals for personal stories or details… I have also worked with people of varying levels of psychological wellness, language skills, vulnerability and other needs. More than anything I want to foster an accepting and constructive environment…”
The detention – or ‘immigration removal’ – centre is in a part of England renowned for its landscape rather than its architecture or human-made sites of interest. It’s a minor, plain-enough town, ugly but bustling and not unpleasant on the morning we arrive. Even though the centre itself is a short taxi ride away, its atmosphere has seeped into the town itself, and its people. There’s a jovial, talkative woman driving our cab. “Are you a legal team?” she asks us. Local drivers are accustomed to taking legal aid professionals up to the centre, I gather. At first I think she must have sympathy for the detainees, what with “English not being their first language” and all. Then she surprises me by telling a crude rhyme, which comes out of nowhere:
There was a young lady from Rabat
She throws back her head and laughs, with grotesque relish and mockery, and this macabre exultation – shocking two milksop Londoners with her rhyme – sets the tone of the day.
We draw close and I see the place. Darker, blockier, seedier, uglier than a prison. Prisons have a school vibe to them, a sense of pressurised containment. Some of them look like quite jolly red brick Peabody estates. They’re peaceful from the outside, thick with it. But detention centres are built to terrify and repel even from the outside. They’re designed to be visually disruptive, ugly; a psychogeography of trauma inflicted. There are more rolls of barbed wire outside this detention centre than outside the prison I visit: three rolls atop metal mesh fencing. Barbed wire runs up the muddy grass slope. There are yet more rolls of barbed wire, netting and cameras around the building, which is blocked across the old stone archway that was once the gate of the city. The place seems abandoned – as if everyone just ran out twenty minutes before we turned up. We don’t even feel as though we’re being watched. We feel as if there’s no-one around and nobody cares where we are, who we are or what we’re doing.
“Aren’t there more coming?” asks the woman in charge of education.
The guys shake their heads heavily. They mention their friends’ names and say they might go and look for them again, they might be sleeping. The woman laughs at their slowness.
“It’s healthy and safety,” she says to me in front of them. “When I do it, I get them moving about looking for fire exits. Otherwise they sit there saying they dunno where the fire exits are. If they say they’re tired I get ‘em to stand up and jog on the spot. I’m cruel like that.”
On the way home I read a piece one of the detainess has written, entitled A Conversation That Changed My Life:
“The conversation that changed my life in the UK is the one I had in the Home Office during my first interview, because that conversation was one kind of a bad dream for me. After that conversation I found myself in the detention centre. Adding to what I faced in my home country, it seems like life is a scary movie which I would like to get out from.”