With a declining occupancy in Dungavel, the only Scottish detention centre, Kate Alexander, director of the Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) is imagining what Scotland would look like post-detention and what it would mean for the visitors who have a well established and effective strategy.

At a recent visit to Dungavel, my colleague and I were told that as part of a programme of refurbishment, prompted by criticisms in the second Shaw Review and the latest inspection report, capacity at the centre had been reduced from 249 to 125. No announcement, no fanfare, just quietly halving the capacity of Scotland’s only detention centre.

It is not an entirely surprising decision. Government statistics show that the last time more than 200 people were detained there was in 2015 and since early 2018, the number of people detained has been under 100. As visitors to the centre, we have been aware of low occupancy at Dungavel for some time. It is one of a number of changes in the landscape of detention that SDV will need to think about as we embark on our strategic planning process for the next three years.

Not only are fewer people being detained, they are being detained for shorter periods. In previous years, our visitors visited people who were held in Dungavel for many months and sometimes years. One man I visited in my early days in SDV was detained there for over four years. Currently, the longest anyone has been detained in the UK is two and a half years. Being detained for this length of time is clearly unacceptable and unjust but compared to the situation at the end of 2011 when one person had been detained for over six years, it is progress.

How does change impact on visitors’ work?

These developments are the result of successful campaigning by people with experience of detention and the organisations that work with them such as Detention Forum and its members. The Government is under sustained pressure to detain fewer people and to do so for shorter periods. There has already had an impact on the experience of visitors. We know that one of the most positive experiences people gain from visiting, is building long term supportive relationships and friendships with people they meet in detention, and these relationships are now shorter and less frequent. It’s an odd position to be in. We are obviously pleased that change is happening, but for our visitors, that change comes at the cost of a changing visiting dynamic.

In her blog for Unlocking Detention a couple of weeks ago, Ali McGinley of the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), considered the impact that a time limit on detention might have on visiting groups. She argued that with a 28 day time limit, visiting would change to one-off support sessions rather than long term supportive relationships. This is something we have already had to give some thought to. In 2016, when the Government announced its plans to close Dungavel and replace it with a short term holding facility at Glasgow Airport, we faced the prospect of redesigning our services to work with people who would be detained in the new centre for a week or less before removal, or more likely a move to another centre in England. That did not happen and Dungavel remains open, but we are again thinking about how to respond to change. Our thoughts now are more positive. I have never been more hopeful that a time limit will be introduced in the short to medium term. This will be a major step forward for people in detention and those at risk of detention, but we will have to think about what that means for us and our visitors and how we work with people who are no longer held indefinitely.

Alternatives to detention

Discussions of a time limit have always gone hand in hand with discussions of alternatives to detention. Campaigning on detention reform has argued that it is possible for the Government to manage immigration without the use of detention. The Home Office is now committed to a series of pilots of community based alternatives to detention. We have consistently argued that Scotland is the ideal place to introduce alternatives. It has a devolved Government with wide powers and a more positive approach to immigration than at Westminster, a strong and vibrant voluntary sector working on migration, and now it only has capacity to detain 125 people. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has made no secret of its desire to hold another independence referendum. Like last time, any such move is likely to come with a pledge to close Dungavel in an independent Scotland, which means any new administration would have to consider alternatives.

But something SDV, and other organisations like us, will have to ponder as we continue to make the case for alternatives is that they are not about detention at all. They are about moving to a system with no detention. And so, as we look toward the next three years, we might be looking to a time when detention will no longer exists in Scotland and will need to think about whether there will be a role for SDV at all in a post-detention Scotland.

It’s a rather thrilling prospect!