It is an understatement to say that the crisis we find ourselves in has changed everything. We’ve all had to adapt to lockdown conditions while trying to make sense of the scale of what is happening. But we are no longer in the initial shock phase. Like many other organisations, AVID and its members had to adapt quickly to ensure that people in detention were still able to access our support. Now, it is time to consider what the longer-term impacts of these changes might be.
Since the start of lockdown, AVID members have been adapting their support services in different ways. Most are now delivering the emotional and practical support so synonymous with visiting, via phone. Some are also able to provide visits by Skype where this is available. And when people began to be released from detention in higher numbers than we’d ever seen before, many of the organisations in our network began to deliver post detention support. We all began to quickly migrate our training, workshops and skillshares online. Training in new areas like phone support was rolled out. We set up weekly calls by zoom so we could share what we were doing with each other and make sure there was consistency across provision in the different centres. And for the many hundreds of volunteers, this meant adapting to a very different volunteering experience: one where face to face contact is replaced by a weekly call. Until we can visit again, this has all helped ensure that people in detention can still access some form of practical and emotional support.
After the frantic first few weeks, like many others, we are now asking ourselves where we go from here.
The crisis has forced many of us to consider some of the broader questions we have been quietly mulling over for some time. Detention numbers have been falling for some years: between 2016 and 2019, four centres closed, and the numbers in detention fell by 40% over a similar period. And while indefinite detention still means that some people are held for extremely long periods, overall the lengths of detention have also been on a downward trend. Until very recently we were discussing what this means for us – as a group of organisations supporting people inside detention – in a very ad hoc way. Now, with numbers at around 700 across both detention centres and prisons, with some centres empty and some with as few as 20 people inside, we have to consider what this means. There is a real opportunity here. With the Home Office releasing as many people as they have done, how can they argue that detention is truly necessary? How can we avoid going back to ‘enforcement as usual’?
For those of us supporting people in detention, it also means thinking through how we adapt to these changes too. Fewer people in detention and for shorter periods is to be celebrated. It also changes the nature of visiting, which may become less about developing relationships over time through a weekly visit, and more about one off support sessions. A single visit may be more about crisis management and being able to impart information concisely, quickly and easily, rather than being able to build trust slowly and carefully. This is a very different skills set, and an entirely different volunteer experience. If, as is hoped, a time limit is introduced in the future, we may see further closures. When this happens there is often some soul searching about how (and whether) to adapt provision to a different environment. Some AVID members have been able to utilise their volunteer skills base to deliver similar visiting programmes in prisons (e.g. Asylum Welcome). Others have moved towards community support, through awareness raising (Verne Visitors Group) or support post detention (Samphire). There are also a range of different projects and programmes now delivered alongside visiting, which range from experts by experience peer support groups, to campaigning, advocacy, and education programmes.
Whatever the future brings, it is clear that we are going to have to continue to adapt to a situation that is ever changing. We can only do this by listening carefully to what people experiencing detention are telling us, and by continuing to stand with them, in whatever form that takes.