The writer visited one of the wings of Brook House Immigration Removal Centre a few years ago. This is an edited version of his diary.
Several months previously, I was part of a small group of people who were given a tour inside one of the high-security immigration detention centres. Towards the end of the tour, we were led into the isolation units. This is where, well, people are isolated from the rest of the ‘detainees’. I won’t go into the technicalities of “isolation”, the statutory rules that stipulate how isolation can be authorised or why I was there in the first place because they are not relevant here. People who are more interested in policy matters are encouraged to read multitude of rules and regulations which legitimise and normalise immigration detention.
The wing we walked into was very quiet, so quiet that we could hear the strong wind that seeped incessantly through gaps between the several thick metal doors behind us and the floor. In fact, a short corridor where about 10 cells were located, with 4 or 5 of them on each side, felt like a wind tunnel. Outside each cell, there was a well-used, small whiteboard which presumably carries information about the people inside the cell. Some cells seemed occupied though there was no information on the whiteboard outside, not even names.
Through an open door, we silently watched two security guards checking on the person inside. I could only see the man’s back, and, frankly, I was glad of it. It felt violating to intrude like this. I didn’t know if he wanted us to witness his isolation – although I was pretty sure that he did not realise that we were there. One guard was talking to him quietly inside, while the other guard was looking downwards, maybe at the floor, as if he didn’t know what to do with himself. Just outside this open door were a pair of worn flip flops, which must have been light green when brand new, placed neatly next to each other. They were greying around the edges quite badly.
A sight of the flip flops just suddenly brought me back to where I grew up, to the part of the world where we take our shoes off to go into any private living space or sacred space. We are told, from when we are small, to make sure to place our shoes neatly when we take them off – the practice that I generally no longer care about. Nowadays my shoes are scattered randomly and haphazardly on the floor near the front door of my flat, tripping me every time I am leaving the flat in a hurry – but I do slip back into my old habit when I am in the presence of my family members.
This man must have come from the part of the world that I am originally from – and I do not mean the country or the city, just that general other parts of the world, outside Europe, where most of the people in detention are from. I also imagined the man’s bare, exposed feet in those flip flops, which seemed incongruous to the hard environment of metal doors and concrete floors of the detention centre.
Immigration detention distorts the humanity of those who get entangled in this state mechanism. People held in detention are reduced to the worn flip flops placed neatly outside their isolation unit doors. They turn into mute figures whose uncommunicative, downcast eyes met ours surreptitiously as they were ushered from one locked door to another, always followed by the sound of clanking keys hanging from the private security company employee’s waists.
Maybe the distortion also affects the humanity of those who implement this system – so much that they become an integral part of the act of violating human rights. These isolation units we visited in fact make an appearance in one of the landmark detention cases, where the High Court found the UKBA – now the Home Office – to have breached immigration detainees’ Article 3 rights. We are distracting ourselves if our main concern remains whether the Home Office technically breached detainees’ Article 3 rights or not on specific occasions – the point is that the inhumane practice of detention continues every day, even on days that the High Court is not paying any attention to it.
The isolations units were drab and bleak, but surprisingly unremarkable. I didn’t see any specific instruments of torture, nor blood stains. There was no screaming and the flip flops were mute. That’s where detention continues, unwitnessed.