While Brook House immigration detention centre has achieved a certain level of notoriety after an investigative BBC Panorama documentary hit the news in 2017, a nearby centre, Tinsley House, is hardly talked about. Mishka, one of the Detention Forum volunteers, spoke to people who know both centres as visitors, to find out what differences lie between them.

Both Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres sit next to Gatwick Airport, about 200m from the main runway. Established in 1999, Tinsley House was the UK’s first purpose built detention centre. 

I was curious to know more about Tinsley House but there is not much information about it even on the Internet: it is one of the lesser known detention centres that rarely appears in the media. I was privileged to speak to a couple of people who visit both Tinsley House and Brook House for this blog in my attempt to describe what Tinsley House is like to people like me who have never been there. Sadly, I could not speak to anyone with first-hand experience of Tinsley House. This was disappointing, as they might have shared with me details that could not be found in any report. 

Overall, Tinsley House appears to be a more ‘relaxed’ detention centre when compared with its neighbour, Brook House. The people I spoke to said they find the experience of visiting Tinsley House better than visiting Brook House. Many of the  people they have visited in Tinsley say that officers at Tinsley are known for relatively respectful treatment of people held in there. The 2018 HM Prison Inspector’s report (P.7) stated, “In our survey, 78% of detainees said most staff were respectful”.

It was interesting to discover more about the Tinsley House visiting hall and visiting procedures. I was told that it offers free tea and coffee and often background music is playing. There is only one security search, which feels quite casual. One of the very experienced visitors said, “The staff at the reception at Tinsley are really pleasant people. I have heard them interacting with relatives and they also treat them well – you just feel much better visiting Tinsley”. 

Brook House is a much more high-security environment, with visitors having to undergo several security searches – apparently looking for drugs. Even some of the staff members have confided that they find shifts at Brook House unpleasant and they much prefer working at Tinsley House. Another worrying tale I heard from one visitor is that segregation, which is the practice of separating people in detention from the rest and locking them up in isolated rooms happens frequently in Brook House: they have come across many people to whom this happened.  

Threats and fear

Even though Tinsley House may appear to the visitors be a more relaxed detention centre and those held there may find the experience less traumatising in Tinsley, the people held there often talk to their visitors about the fear of being removed to another country at any given time, being separated from their family and friends and the trauma of indefinite detention. People who are transferred from Tinsley House to Brook House consider it a punishment. This is corroborated by the 2018 HM Prison Inspectors report (p.5): “many detainees told us staff had threatened to have them transferred to the neighbouring Brook House IRC and it was a concern that detainees and staff regarded being moved to another IRC as a punishment”.

Why do these two centres create different environments even though the same private contractor, G4S, runs both these centres? There might be a number of reasons for this. Brook House is a larger detention centre with a higher capacity of 443 compared to Tinsley House’s operational capacity of 162.  One visitor told me that “Brook House seems to have a lot more drugs, it is a ‘rough centre’ and it feels a lot more on edge”. The different atmospheres might explain why staff and security measures are so different in the two centres: the staff and the security measures inevitably have to be strict according to the environment. 

The fact that you do not hear much about Tinsley House in the news is perhaps harder to explain. Some speculate that it is because there are few bad things to report about Tinsley House. But I am not sure if that is true, since conditions in Tinsley for those detained are as bad as in other more scandal-ridden centres. For example, one of the visitors I spoke to said that people find healthcare in Tinsley as inadequate as in other detention centres. The latest Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) report  (p.10)on Tinsley published in June this year highlighted concerns about the detention of vulnerable people in Tinsley: “During the year there were 98 Rule 35 (people assessed as vulnerable) reports on the basis of which only 20 detainees were released, with detention being maintained in the remaining 78 cases

The IMB report also reveals there were 24 suicide attempts in 2018 and 31 people held there in 2018 were put on 24-hour suicide watch due to imminent self-harm concerns. The lack of media and public scrutiny at Tinsley means that any issues with this centre may remain invisible. Brook House is a scandal hit detention centre, like many others, and it is regularly in the news. But if immigration detention itself is a scandal, Tinsley House should be considered equally as a place of scandal. 

Tinsley House | Unlocked19

I visit for the injustice

I asked the visitors why they decided to start visiting in the first place, and the answers I received made me feel quite encouraged. One of them said that they initially heard about detention centres through another experienced visitor. She said hearing about the injustice that dwells inside those walls and what people held in those places go through “boiled my heart and I decided to become a volunteer visitor”. 

Another visitor said, “I feel quite passionate about trying to help people with past convictions, as not many are on their side. A lot of the focus is around ‘classic refugees’. Yes, they have made mistakes, they have served their sentence and justice has been done. I really dislike the way as a society we have an awful way of saying this person has committed a crime and that person is disregarded for life”. This was refreshing to hear since many people fall into the pitfall of a ‘deserving vs non- deserving approach’ when they talk about the rights of people in immigration detention. 

When we talk about detention, it is important to talk on behalf of everyone in detention, irrespective of their circumstances, their background and why they are in immigration detention in the first place. What detention could do to people, how it makes people shattered, and how it pushes people over the edge are applicable and relevant to all people in immigration detention. Let’s consider immigration detention as a human rights and civil liberties issue – applicable to anyone incarcerated in those places.