This post was written by Zoe Burton, Programme Manager (maternity cover, 2012 and 2014) for Music in Detention (MID).  MID is a member of the Detention Forum. 

I was delighted to be recruited to Music In Detention as Programme Manager (maternity cover) in Jan 2012 to coordinate a number of participatory music making programmes in four Immigration Removal Centres. I had previously worked in a drop- in day centre for refugees and asylum seekers where I had seen first -hand how arts based projects provided an opportunity for people to make friends, escape the relentless worry about their situations and enjoy a release through self -expression. These activities also helped to alleviate the acute boredom people felt, brought on by the day- to -day struggle to survive with no means to do anything or go anywhere.

People experiencing detention talk about the extreme mental anguish they go through due to the uncertainty of their situation. Often separated from loved ones, including partners and children, people are detained with no time limit to their imprisonment and live with the constant threat of deportation, possibly to a country where they have no ties or affinities.

“We’re being tortured… We’re not physically bullied, but we’re mentally beaten.”

Day to day life in detention is routine, in some centres there is limited access to facilities, such as an internet suite, library or gym and little opportunity to mix with other detainees in a social setting. With too much time on their hands it is hard for detainees to escape their worries or to build up the strength to deal with the anxiety of the unknown.

“So at the moment there’s no other music activities going on?

“No, not at the moment. Because nowadays, it’s same old, same old, playing pool or just library, and apparently it’s going to be packed after this, because more people are going to be coming in. So it’s going to be hard, you can only use the computer for one hour. So basically there’s not going to be much activity or much to do.” (Discussion with a detainee at Campsfield House, June 2014)

Unlike prison, where there is often a focus on rehabilitation and acquisition of skills, in detention, it can seem that people are simply ‘warehoused’ prior to removal or release, left to languish in a bureaucratic limbo.

“So does anyone here talk to you about the future, about careers, I know you were saying you want to do community work, does somebody come and talk to you about studying or jobs?

No, they’re all looking to send us home so why would they!?” (Discussion with detainees at Campsfield House, June 2014)

People in detention are currently denied access to social media platforms such as Facebook, which increases their isolation from the outside world and makes it difficult pre- removal or release to enlist the help needed, such as being met at the airport.

Music In Detention was founded in 2006, bringing participatory music making into detention centres to help people cope; as a means of stress relief and self -expression, building self-esteem and connecting with other people, both in detention and with people living in communities near the centres, ‘over the wall’ so to speak.

“So that music workshop was heaven. We’ve got digital TVs here, we’ve got library but it’s not really something to do is it? But when you got the music workshop…”

You mean it occupies you? Because there are things to do right, there’s the gym, there’s the hairdressing and the … “One week with that is enough!  Stay here for one week. Then you’ll have the feeling. Because Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the head is in a deep depression, but Thursday me know say 2 o clock music class –there’s going to be music…” extract from a discussion with detainees at Yarl’s Wood IRC, March 2012

People who are detained feel a huge sense of powerlessness which is compounded by the rigid routines, a lack of varied activity and timely information about their immigration case.

“The whole thing: eat, sleep and shower everyday – just that. We’re not children, you know… There’s so many things which you could be doing for yourself and then you can’t because there’s no information coming to you”

People are also mistrustful of the Home Office decision making processes, things seem arbitrary, and the system makes people feel dehumanized. … “and they leave you. It’s like you buy a Christmas toy and you leave it on the shelf – you got no connections to that toy – that’s exactly how it feels. It’s like you’re being left on the shelf and you’re waiting for the immigration, which is the little kid, to come and play with you, to come and take you and connect you back to the world and put you in use. And then when they don’t want you again they just put you back on the shelf.”

Within this context of uncertainty detainees suffer a negative impact on their mental and physical health which can worsen in severity over time. A recent study found that 83% of detainees suffered depression and 22% had considered suicide. (Bosworth & Kellezi, Oxford University, 2012)

So in my new role at Music In Detention I was keen to visit some workshops. My first visit was to Campsfield House IRC in Oxfordshire. After the unnerving experience of going through security and being searched I got into the mood for the session.  The workshop was based around celebrating Chinese New Year and that was some party!  About 60 detainees came to the ‘big screen room’ and all participated at some level or other during the four hours of drumming, percussion and Chinese scarf/fan dancing. Lots of detainees recognized the artists from previous visits saying hello and shaking hands as they arrived, looking excited about the workshop ahead. Of course, this was great to see but also unsettling as I realized some people must have been there for quite some time.

At first the MID artist, Paul, distributed his unique junk percussion instruments to as many people as possible and got live Chinese rhythms going. People let off a lot of steam and reveled in the chaotic, raucous atmosphere, joking with each other, egging each other on and crashing symbols as a joke near the Detention Custody Officers who were escorting the workshop. I was delighted to see these jovial challenges to authority. Some of the Afghani guys enjoyed having a laugh putting various random items into the back of the MID artist’s drum and hence changing the sound. The artist did an amazing job getting people to participate while trying to keep some semblance of musicality in the room!

Then a pause, MID artist Yan appeared in a beautiful costume and performed an enchanting series of traditional Chinese dances.  After the crescendo of sound there was a hush in the room as everyone watched, took a breath and a seat.  After this break the participatory element came back and Yan demonstrated some moves with scarves and fans so that everyone could copy. The Kurdish and Afghanis especially loved this, dancing wildly, spinning the scarves and fans, or wearing the scarves on their heads. Then three guys (Chinese, Afghan and Jamaican) took centre stage and enacted a surreal bull fight with a red scarf and a drum, all the detainees were laughing at this impromptu drama! Then the party continued as some danced and others kept the beats going.

By now the atmosphere was electric, cleaning and canteen staff started peering into the room, joining in too, and everyone was smiling. One member of staff came in grinning and said “I’m trying to sleep out there!” and the detainees responded with a rousing drum roll and howls of delight. Another staff member stood on a window ledge shaking his percussion instrument with joy, smiling across the room.

There were many points I forgot I was in a detention centre. Until of course the party was over and I could go home. A film came on which may have helped people calm down a bit but I think a lot of people just went to their beds, with the promise of another MID workshop coming soon. One Indian detainee said to me when it was over “My mind is so clear now”.

I learned from the MID percussion artist, Paul, that it is very rare in Chinese culture for people to participate in traditional dance forms (and music); people are either audience members or performing artists. So in this unusual context of an IRC, where so many cultures come together in such a music workshop, people were learning traditional forms from their home country.

“Two hours will pass and you stop thinking when am I getting deported, when am I getting released, you just focus on the music and there are Jamaicans and Chinese and Indians and everyone, all playing together. And we learn what other cultures do and it makes a unity, we share it together.” (Workshop participant at Campsfield House, 2012)

My next visit to a MID workshop was at Yarl’s Wood IRC, Bedfordshire (Females & families with adult children).  This workshop was a unique combination of Taiko and Tabla drumming, facilitated by Liz Walters and Sanju Sahai from Asian Music Circuit.

We were in the ‘party room’, small and cozy, with turntables, mixing desk and replete with disco lights. At first it seemed a strange anomaly to me considering the context but I was assuming the ‘residents’ wouldn’t feel like dancing and there I was working for a charity which puts on music workshops in detention centres! I could see efforts were made to soften the environment, with lots of colourful drawings and paintings in all the corridors, like a school, but for grown-ups who aren’t allowed to leave. The smell, akin to British school dinners, wafted around and there seemed to be frequent tannoy announcements that were indecipherable. The beauty salon was busy and lively and the library quiet with attentive staff around.

The group was small, partly because the party room is hidden away so not many people could hear the drumming (best advertisement for a MID workshop!). However the ensuing hour of Taiko was uplifting and powerful, considering none of us in the room had ever been near a Taiko drum.

Liz’s sensitive and gentle approach enabled everyone to feel safe in their drumming circle as the beats got louder, the smiles bigger and the movements more precise and all in tune with each other. “This is really good for stress releasing!!” shouted one lady grinning from ear to ear and ready to play again at the next session.

One participant chose to sit out; she had had two wisdom teeth removed that morning and was coping with the pain, having had a couple of Paracetamol earlier. However she said she really wanted to stay in the workshop and enjoyed watching throughout. She added a lovely presence to the room.

Then we moved on to the Tabla. Sanju asked participants to close their eyes and imagine a steam train whilst he played the most incredible rhythms on his Tabla. This completely absorbed everyone as they were already physically relaxed from the Taiko and now mentally and physically relaxed further from the mesmerizing and beautiful sounds of Sanju and his Tabla.

The session finished with Liz speaking to everyone about how they felt after the session, how they were doing generally. After listening to their responses I realized  just how isolated everyone is from each other, subsumed in their problems and separated by language, culture and ethnicity; it isn’t easy for people to even converse in detention, never mind make friends.

As I left I was overcome by the combination of vulnerability and resilience I had seen amongst the group, and of course, again I was going home, leaving the surreal environment of Twinwoods Business Park as the women went for their evening centre roll call.

“Sometimes it’s so good to know that somebody’s feeling the way that you feel because when you read her lyrics …and you say wow that’s what I was thinking about, I didn’t write it but that’s it!” (Workshop participant at Yarl’s Wood talking about a recent MID songwriting project, 2012)

Later in the year I went to visit a workshop at Harmondsworth IRC, London Heathrow (Male) facilitated by H Patten and Alex D Great from Music for Change. After the astonishment of seeing the gigantic gates and enormous clunky keys as I was escorted through the various buildings to get to the music room I was pleasantly surprised to see such a well -equipped music resource with colourful murals on the walls of people playing instruments.

The session started off with H teaching the group some drumming rhythms. H is an expert in enabling people to let off steam with the drums! He knows that for us novices (my first experience) our hands will soon start to smart and you can’t continue at that pace. Soon we were united in rhythm and everyone started to relax by feeling energized as a group. We were joined by two members of staff, great musicians themselves on tenor sax and bass guitar and accompanied by a detainee who was a brilliant drummer. Two other members of staff also participated throughout the sessions. I could see the tensions and normal hierarchies between staff and detainees melt away as we all became human beings simply enjoying a jam.

After the dinner break people from another wing had their session but many came from the earlier one as the staff kindly escorted them to the music room. Following another percussion session it was time for detainees to lead and sing together. Alex was amazing at facilitating people’s choices in music and accompanying people who took to the mic to sing their favourite songs. We had a proper jamming party culminating in a karaoke style sing along with one detainee drenched in sweat as he joyously led the session with many Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff favourites. Spontaneous bouts of dancing broke out too.

As people were enjoying themselves the staff let the session run on a bit later than planned. During this time none of us were worrying about our problems. Getting home around 11pm that night I was full of memories, wondering what was going to happen to all the people I had met, people who missed their loved ones on the outside and felt at the mercy of the UK immigration system while detained indefinitely.

“Intact. Sanity intact. It keeps my sanity intact”. (Workshop participant, Yarl’s Wood IRC, 2012.)