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Life is a Scary Movie - Inside a UK Detention Centre

  • By Bidisha
  • 26th February 2015
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"Hands down one of the most frightening places I've ever been to". Writer and broadcaster Bidisha recounts her experiences visiting a UK detention centre to give a writing workshop.

The staff at the detention centre were suspicious even before we arrived, asking for assurances that we wouldn’t name them or give any hints as to where the place was. The staff referred to the people inside as ‘detainees’ and asked that “the workshop content is suited to a detainee context.” I replied, “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…”

I needn’t have bothered. The detention centre was, hands down, one of the most frightening places I’ve ever been to, not because of its topography, its architecture or its psychogeography but because of the sheer nastiness, anger and self-satisfaction of the staff, civilians and guards alike. It was horrifying, a sinister place where it was made clear to me and my colleague 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 detention – or ‘immigration removal’ – centre is in a part of England famous for its landscape rather than its landmarks, a plain-enough town, ugly but bustling and not unpleasant on the morning we arrive. But even though the centre itself is a short cab ride away, its atmosphere has seeped into the town itself, and its people. There’s a jovial, talkative woman driving our taxi. “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. And then she shocks me by telling us 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 a disgusting rhyme – sets the uncanny 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 containment. Some of them look like quite jolly red brick Peabody estates as you approach. They’re peaceful, thick with it. But detention centres are built to terrify and repel even from the outside. 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 right 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. There’s no-one around and we don’t even feel as though we’re being watched; we feel as if nobody cares where we are, who we are or what we’re doing.

I go into the visitors’ centre where we’re supposed to leave all 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, because nobody scanned me, checked me or searched my bag. The staff seem clueless. I hear one make an announcement on the communications system: “Call out. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Officer Ryder, can you call in?” 

High walls
Image by Nate Steiner via Flickr

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 a sneer and derisive indifference. We pass through our ID and he barely glances at it. “Is there anyone else coming in with you? Just you two?” In a prison you get a shrewd and searching look, they leaf through your ID, write your name in a little book along with the time you came in. Here, they don’t care, and that’s what makes it so frightening.

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. “No – no – there’s only one officer and that’s for our protection.” The education centre’s like a modern school block, corridors and classrooms. The first thing I see when I go in to meet some of the other staff is a woman cleaning her hands with hand sanitiser, as though the detainees are dirty, or whatever they touch is dirty. The staff joke among 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 basic interest. “They do like their sleep,” they say, snidely. The staff members, alerted to the novelty of us being there, look us over. After asking a few questioning and painfully pulling out answers I learn that most of the staff work wholly within the detention system, moving from centre to centre.

The woman in charge of the education centre takes us to the small classroom – 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 cheap-looking 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.

A few men come in – there are no women here – heads bowed, walking slowly, 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. There are good facilities for making music at this centre, apparently.

One man comes in on crutches. His leg has been amputated just below the knee.

“Aren&rsqursquo;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, they might be sleeping. The woman laughs at their slowness, which is a clear sign of depression to me.

“It’s health and safety,” she says. “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 of me – it’s that the oppressiveness of the environment itself, its fearfulness and energy-sapping intimidation, has seeped into them and mixed with the horror and trauma that are 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 genre. 

“Comedy. Something positive,” I say. “‘If the man doesn’t catch his train on time then….’”

“Then you will die!” bursts out one of the men in the class, his eyes huge and full of tears, his 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 here, they weren’t believed. Not the guy who is crying, not the guy whose leg was chopped off, none of them. 

The despair seeps into the entire class. All the guards I’ve seen so far are white men. Every so often one of them slopes into the classroom, trades sardonic looks with the education woman, looks at the detainees as though they’re scum, looks me up and down with glinting smug eyes, says, “So. You’re the author.” This is a novelty for them – one to be sneered at the same way they sneer at everything. There is an overwhelming sense of foreboding.

CCTV camera
Image by Charbel Akhras via Flickr

The cynicism only 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 slope off, back to sleep again, sleep off the pain. The education woman seems pleased as she walks us out. “I’m reading Jane Austen’s autobiography at the moment,” she boasts to us. Austen didn’t write an autobiography. “I don’t intend to read any of the novels. I’ve seen the films.” As she says it, with a sharp, slash relish, she grins hard as though she has put Austen firmly in her place.

We call for a taxi, twice. It doesn’t arrive – 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, full of luggage – cheerful, normal-looking wheelie cases, as if people are going on holiday. Guards are pulling out the luggage and leaving it on the ground. It’s shift handover time and the guards are coming out of the centre. 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, and as he drives fast the officer’s face is hard and set and satisfied.

On the way home I read a piece one of the men 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.”

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