Wednesday 31 December 2014

Psychogeography of trauma: inside a UK detention centre

A slightly different (worse) version of this essay was published by The Free Word Centre as part of its Briefing Notes essay series. Read the original here.

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
Who gave birth to triplets Pat, Nat and Cat
Breeding was fine, but feeding wasn’t
When she found she had no tit for tat.

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.

I go to the visitors’ centre where we’re supposed to leave our things in lockers numbered from 1 to 180. There’s a sign saying “Powdered baby milk/food is not allowed in the centre. Please ensure you have enough baby milk/food made up for the duration of your visit.” There’s a form I can fill in, headed “Violence reduction: reporting any incident of unacceptable behaviour.” It invites me to describe “what incident has cause [me] to feel intimidated, upset, threatened, humiliated, embarrassed or frightened.” At the bottom of the form, in block letters, it says, “Everyone has the right to feel safe here…. Unacceptable behaviour in any form will not be tolerated.” I’m assuming that this is a form for reporting on detainees’ behaviour, not guards’ behaviour. There’s even a drugs amnesty box where you can slot in those last few fronds of weed or whatever it may be. Although there are warning signs everywhere – like “passive sniffer dogs are in use here” and detailed instructions in how to body-search a “male subject” – the truth is that I could stroll in with some drugs, a gun and a camera. Nobody scanned me, checked me or searched my bag. 

We go to the main entrance, Fortress Gate 1, and the guy – the officer? The guard? Who are these people allied to? The police? – greets us with a strange combination of derision and indifference. He doesn’t question our purpose for being there. We hand over our ID and he barely glances at it. “Is there anyone else coming in with you? Just you two?” In prison you get a shrewd and searching look and the hard yet oddly reliable staff rebut any friendliness, leaf through your ID as if it’s fake, then write your name in little letters a little book along with the time you came in. Here, they don’t care, or don’t know, and that’s what makes it so frightening. One man makes an announcement on the communications system: “Call out. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Officer Ryder, can you call in?” Later I find out from a colleague who sits on asylum appeal panels that these detention centres are run by private companies, the same ones (like G4S) that’re making a killing from operating huge American prison complexes. The staff are private company employees, not public servants.

At this immigration removal centre there’s a “rec pitch” – a football pitch – a gym and an education centre, which is where we’re going. “Do you ever get trouble?” I ask the woman in charge of education, a brisk type who, like our taxi driver, seems full of uncanny, righteous anger. “No – no – there’s only one officer and that’s for our protection,” she says with a laugh that hits my nerves. The education centre’s like a modern school block with corridors and classrooms. I go in to meet some of the other staff and see a woman vigorously cleaning her hands with hand sanitiser, as though the detainees are dirty and whatever they touch is dirty. The staff laugh amongst themselves about how the detainees “sleep ‘til two or three in the afternoon.” I point out that sleeping so long is a symptom of depression and they nod blandly without a trace of empathy. “They do like their sleep,” they say, snidely. Other staff members, alerted to the novelty of us being here, sidle in and look us over with narrowed eyes and twisted smiles. After asking a few questions and painfully pulling out answers I learn that most of the long term staff work wholly within the detention system, moving from centre to centre. They make a career of it.

The woman in charge of the education centre takes us to the small classroom where the furniture, walls and supplies are in a better state that those at the charities where I do outreach work helping asylum seekers and refugees. The woman casually gives me three flimsy free-with-a-newspaper editions of an Ian Fleming novel, Casino Royale, and says I can give them to the detainees if I want. She doesn’t seem to give a damn either way. She goes out to find and harangue some of the detainees who’d promised to attend my session.

A few men come in – there are no women here – heads bowed, walking slowly and creakily as if weighed down, looking at me out of the corners of their eyes like mistrustful kicked dogs. They are from all over the world, southern Africa, eastern Europe, east Asia, with varying levels of English. One east Asian guy had a full life in the UK, running a business and making music, with a wife and baby, before he was picked up and slung in here. There are good facilities for making music at this centre, apparently. 

One man comes in on crutches. His leg has been amputated, or hacked off, just below the knee. He is completely silent and seems shattered, mentally.
“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.”

I go through some bits of reading and some short writing exercises but don’t make much headway. It’s not that the men are disengaged or contemptuous, it’s that the oppressiveness of the environment itself, its fearfulness and energy sapping intimidation, has seeped into them and mixed with the horror that is quite obviously already there. We’re having some fun with different genres – Horror, Romance, Comedy, Western, Sci-Fi – and I start a sentence and get them to finish it in the spirit of a certain type of writing. 

“Comedy. Something positive,” I say. “‘If the man doesn’t catch his train on time then….’”
“Then he will die!” bursts out one of the men in the class, his eyes huge and full of tears, his dry voice trembling.

That is how it goes on. Many of the men at the back don’t want to speak because their English isn’t good. They are forcing themselves to be in the class and gruffly encouraging their friends. But they are all here for the same reason: whatever they went through to come to the UK, whatever they left behind, they weren’t believed, they tell me. Not the guy who’s crying, not the guy whose leg was chopped off, none of them.

The despair and a strange feeling of intimidation spread across the entire class. All the guards I’ve seen so far are short, heavy-set white men. Every so often one of them slopes into the room as though he owns it, trades sardonic looks with the education woman, looks at the detainees as though they’re scum, looks me up and down with glinting eyes and a smug smile and says, “So. You’re the author.” There is an overwhelming sense of foreboding.

The cynicism lifts slightly when we visit the library, which is empty. The librarian speaks with real care for the detainees, showing us the selection of films and books in different languages, the long stacks of dictionaries: Albanian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, even Tamil for Sri Lankans fleeing the aftermath of the civil war. She tries to make sure that every language spoken in the centre is catered for. 

When the session is up the men go off, slow and pained. The education woman seems fiercely pleased as she walks us out. “I’m reading Jane Austen’s autobiography at the moment,” she boasts loudly. Austen didn’t write an autobiography. “I don’t intend to read any of the novels. I’ve seen the films.” She says it with sharp, slashing relish, eyes glowing as though she’s put Austen firmly back in her place. 

We call for a taxi, twice. It doesn’t come. Perhaps the taxi firm thinks it’s going to be picking up detainees, illegal immigrants who won’t pay the fare. There’s a minivan parked outside the detention centre, full of luggage: cheerful, normal-looking wheelie cases, as if people are going on holiday. Staff members are pulling out the luggage and leaving it on the ground. It’s shift handover time and guards are coming out of the centre, swaggering, marching and righteous, jaws tensed. They’re so angry that they jerk their cars hard out of the parking spots, backing out sharply and speeding through the car park, tyres scraping, engines revving hard. One of them almost runs over my colleague, I think deliberately, backing straight into him as we idle about waiting for the taxi. As he drives past the officer’s face is hard and set and satisfied. 


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.”