Every night, thousands of migrants go to bed in one of the UK’s twelve Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) with no idea what they will wake up to. Locked up for months or years, uncertainty governs their lives – their detention is without time-limit. And they are not the only ones.
The UK government also indefinitely detains a substantial number of migrants in prisons under immigration powers. Like those innocently incarcerated in IRCs, they are not prisoners. They are not serving criminal sentences at the order of a court. They have no ‘debt to society’ to pay – they are there for the administrative convenience of the Home Office.
Here, Abdal, a member of the Freed Voices group, speaks out about his experiences of indefinite detention in prison and compares it to the time he spent in IRCs:
I think being detained in prison is the most terrible thing any migrant can experience in the UK.
I will never forget when I got my ‘Death Warrant’. This is what we call the IS91 form which authorises your detention. Just when you’ve got your hopes up you’d be released from prison to see your friends and family…just when you thought you were going move on with your life….WHAM! You get the ‘Death Warrant’. This piece of paper means you are going to be detained by the Secretary of State. You are not going to be released. The ‘Death Warrant’ is usually given to you by a prison officer, who doesn’t really know what the paper is or what it means for you. It is very unlikely you’ll get any kind of explanation from an immigration officer. As a foreign national, if you are lucky, there’ll be an interpreter around to explain what’s happening. But this is rare. The only thing you understand is the ‘Death Warrant’ means you are not getting out on the day you were supposed to. Instead, they are going to try and deport you.
On top of this great emotional shock, you have to quickly readjust (and comply) with the strict prison system you thought you were escaping. You have done absolutely nothing wrong, you have served your sentence, but you are a prisoner again. You are locked up – sometimes for 24 hours, only out for food and shower. Some days you are only allowed out for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter whether you are there under a conviction or not. Everyone complies. The prison system says that people held there under immigration powers have the rights and privileges of a ‘remand prisoner’. For me, this came with no benefits at all. Being held under immigration powers in prison means you can have visits without a visiting order, but my friends and family were so far away this had no impact. Even worse, my ‘change in status’ meant that all of the training I had previously had access to as a prisoner was now cut. This was a big deal for me. I realised very early on that education, and pen and paper, were powerful weapons. Just before getting my ‘Death Warrant’ I had signed up to do higher education courses. I had even gone to the first session. When I came to the second class they would not let me in. I was devastated.
In an immigration detention centre, you have possession of a mobile phone, access to documentation, libraries, lawyers, fax machines, photocopiers. A lot of the time there are big problems with these things, but in prison you have none of these opportunities to further yourself or your case. Even if you request them, the odds are against you. Firstly, the prison staff do not have any training in immigration matters. If you want to apply for bail, for example, and you ask an officer on your wing, most will not really understand what it is. If you are lucky, they will call the Foreign National Liaison Officer (who will probably be on holiday). The Foreign National Liaison Officer then calls the library. The library find an application and puts it in the internal post. It reaches the Foreign National Liaison Officer two days later. They put it in the internal post and send it back to the wing officer. He then brings it to the detainee.
Now, if that person does not understand English, they haven’t got a chance. If you can’t read or write, you are done for. To get someone to help you will take forever. It is best to forget it. It breaks my heart to say this, but it is the truth. And it is not a question of laziness – it is a question of hopelessness, exhaustion and the shame of having to always ask for help. (Asking for help also means the detainee might have to explain confidential information to prison officers and many will have serious problems with this.) Even if the form is filled out, you have to go through the same procedure again to get the document to court. The stress during this period is unbearable. Then if you actually get a hearing, you have to go through whole other psychological and logistical marathon, and this will almost certainly end in you being refused bail. This whole process is just one part of a much wider system designed to break you mentally and physically.
The terrible thing is that it often works.
At the end of it all, you are left with a feeling of helplessness and a sense of anger – at yourself, with the prison officers, with the people around you. You feel trapped in an endless cycle of punishment. It is very tiring. It is very frustrating. It can be very difficult to find the strength to continue fighting for your rights. Many people do not even know they have rights as a detainee when they are being held in prison. They have no idea they should have access to a fair trial or legal assistance, or that these rights are abused. There is nothing else to do but to give up. I saw many people self-harm in there. I saw people hang themselves. I tried to commit suicide a number of times.
Even now, I feel great sadness for people suffering in this situation. All I can say is, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Anyone who finds themselves in this place, still alive, still going, they should be extremely proud of themselves. It takes great courage to get out of that kind of hell. But it is possible. Just look at me. I’ve been there. I’ve gone through it.
I won’t forget the injustice done against me. I want to use that anger to fight for a change. Holding people who have served their sentence in prison is a cruel abuse of human rights. At a very minimum, the UK should be signed up to the EU Returns Directive. I wonder what’s stopping them?