Thinking outside the cell

April 30, 2014

Detention in the UK has been an omnipresent feature of this year’s news so far – from the twentieth registered death in detention to the Home Office’s (telling) decision last week to block the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women from visiting Yarl’s Wood IRC. Throw in Independent Chief Inspector John Vine’s call for an urgent review of all long-term detention cases and the recent House of Lords debate on indefinite detention, and it is clear that the will for reform is fast gathering momentum. And yet, whilst debate around conditions and a finite limit on detention is vital, there has been less focus on developing alternatives to the wider ‘control and enforcement’ model of dealing with migrants.

That, in part, is why the discussions of our Advisory Panel last week proved such a refreshing reminder that there are other options, and that a systematic shift away from detention-as-default actually makes sense for everyone. All graduates of our Freed Voices project for migrants leaving detention, who continue to input on our organisational strategy and campaigns, they popped by the Detention Action offices to give us their thoughts on our new Community Support Project.

This innovative model for an alternative to detention sets out to both challenge the distinct lack of evidence informing assumptions by the Home Office (and courts) that foreign ex-offenders will abscond or reoffend if released from detention, and to build on the learning from our initial Freed Voices project.  This pilot project used self-advocacy training and an emphasis on personal autonomy to enable released migrants to move on from the trauma of their detention.

The Community Support Project aims to demonstrate that, with reintegration support, ex-offender migrants actually rarely abscond or reoffend, and therefore that the long-term detention of unreturnable ex-offenders is completely unnecessary. Through one-to-one case management and training, participants will develop skills and confidence that will enable them to participate in the community and meet the conditions of their release from detention.

Reflecting on their own experiences in and out of the Freed Voices project, the four members of the Advisory Panel stressed the pointlessness of their detention and the urgent need for these kinds of community-based models. Hamid, who spent over two years in detention following a prison sentence, noted that “my time in detention was unnecessary and damaging. It meant that when I left detention I felt lost and dejected. I was confused and felt trapped with having to sign. The workshops got me back on my feet and my mind concentrated. I was taught to bring my thoughts together to be coherent and express myself, and to look back at my time in detention and realise that everything was not going away but that I could handle it. The more access people with experiences of detention have to these projects, the better they will be able to cope when they are released.”

Souleymane, who spent around three years in detention, also emphasised the importance of support and harnessing a sense of self-worth: “To really integrate you have to start thinking positively and this project gave me the confidence to do that. I think it was very important for me to campaign for my own rights, on issues that had affected me and were affecting others like me. Not only did it keep me busy, but I felt I had a duty to advocate on behalf of others stuck in detention. It can be a very, very, very difficult place… I saw many people lose hope in detention, many people cut themselves, take their own lives it was that bad… It is not an easy road and this project allowed me to stand with others in solidarity with those locked away unjustly.”

But perhaps the most pertinent words came from Ruhul, another long-time member of the Advisory Panel, who said that “above all, these projects are about respecting people’s dignity, and that should be a fundamental part of all immigration procedures anyway.”

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