The reality of life, and death, in detention


Last night I telephoned members of the Freed Voices group to inform them of the latest death in detention. Number twenty-five to be precise. I told them what we knew – that a man had died that morning in Colnbrook IRC; and I told them what we didn’t – that the exact circumstances of his death were still unknown. Their responses varied. Some were quiet, mournful, our conversation punctuated with long, lost, pauses. Others were angry, bitter, indignant.

Three things stood out.

Firstly, none of them were shocked. They were all deeply moved – any loss of life is a tragedy. But none of them were surprised that such a tragedy could have happened in such a place.

Ishiaba*, who spent two years in Colnbrook, said: “Death is everywhere in detention. People are trying to kill themselves every day. People are expecting to be killed if they are returned to their countries. People feel like they are dying from suffocation, all locked up. You look at some people and they are already dead – they are ghosts. Death is not a strange thing in detention. It has become normalised. It is part of the DNA.”

John, who spent seven months in detention, reflected: “It is maybe a strange thing to say but this is not really surprising to anyone who has experienced indefinite detention first-hand. Detention kills your mind, it kills your soul…and sometimes it just kills.”

Secondly, everyone, without exception, at some point in our conversation or another, repeated the same standout phrase: ‘that could have been me, that could have been me, that could have been me’.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Mani. “That could have been me, dead in a detention cell. The last few weeks I was there…I really thought something would happen…I even tried. There are just no positives. There is nothing to look forward to. There is nowhere to turn for help. That kind of place can kill people.”

Gabriel was predominately detained in Colnbrook: “I thought a lot about death when I was there. The pressure is enormous. Healthcare is terrible. People were given all kinds of medicine. You felt anyone could drop down at any point. It could have been anyone. It could have been me.”

Lastly, everyone I spoke to in the group was keen to address the Home Office and wider government policy on detention.

Shayan spoke bluntly: “How can they justify a system that kills? This is kind of system I run from in the first place. This man was in the Home Office’s protection. It is unacceptable.”

Mani spoke cautiously: “I am curious to hear what government say. I would not be surprised if there is cover-up. We have all seen it many times before. So many times, it’s scary.”

Michael spoke angrily: “Spin this any way you want, detention has killed someone. And this is not the first time either. It’s is the twenty-fifth! What’s the magic number that makes the government sit up and realise this system is broken? It’s like they are addicted. They can’t help themselves, even though it’s bad for them, it’s bad for everybody! But it doesn’t have to be like this. The Detention Inquiry spoke about alternatives. Shaw spoke about alternatives. What’s holding them back?”

Of course, Michael is absolutely right to point to the Shaw Review, which was commissioned by the Home Office and published last month, and to last year’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention. Both highlighted the potentially lethal impact of indefinite detention and both set out precisely the kind fundamental reform needed to help save the detention estate from itself. In response to the former, James Brokenshire, the Minister for Immigration, was adamant change would come, it would come soon, and when it did it would be ‘significant and transformative’. The detention-reform movement has been holding its breath ever since.

Fred was the last person I spoke to. I had struggled to get hold of him and we only managed to chat today, around midday. He is the youngest member of the Freed Voices group. He was in Colnbrook for several months and has been deeply affected by the experience. News had just begun to filter through that the deceased had a wife, who was pregnant. We spoke for ten minutes or so.

Just before we said goodbye, he mused: “But things will change, right? Surely now the government has to wake up to the reality of life, and death, in detention. Wake up…wake up…they have to wake up.”

* The names of some Freed Voices members in this piece have been changed.