From the Field is Border Criminologies’ ‘mini-post’ series featuring news from researchers currently in the field. In this installment, Tiên-Nhạn Phan, a postgraduate student of the University of Oxford MSc programme in Refugee and Forced Migration, provides her thoughts and reflections on two day-trips where she accompanied Ines Hasselberg to HMP Huntercombe. Tiên-Nhạn went to HMP Huntercombe in her capacity as a Vietnamese-speaking researcher. Her task was more than simply interpreting – she was asked to engage informally with the Vietnamese prisoners who could not speak any English, as well as interview some of them. 

HMP Huntercombe Photo: bbc.co.uk
In the week leading up to my visit to HMP Huntercombe, I wanted more context about what prison was like in the UK to better understand the experiences of those in the English penal system. My exposure to prison is limited. Other than a few visits to immigration detention centers, and perhaps my fifth grade field trip to “juvie” in New York City, I could think of little to help me navigate my upcoming trip.

In the week following my first visit to HMP Huntercombe, I pondered more seriously the assumptions I carry about inmates and their crimes, while reflecting more broadly on societal assumptions about foreigners in prison. How effective is it to detain individuals with whom you cannot adequately communicate? Does one’s status as a foreigner, who is to some extent outside the purview of the state, negate his or her right for rehabilitation?

‘Going to prison,’ as Ines often casually refers to it, carries with it varying degrees of critical perspectives. In the US, we are full of superlatives when it comes to the criminal justice system: we boast the highest incarceration rate in the world (five times the global average), the largest federal prison budget (six times more money spent on prisons than education), and the greatest percentage of illiterate inmates (over 75% illiterate at a high school reading level). With a higher percent of imprisoned minorities than any other country in the world, institutionalized racism also stands ubiquitous to the American perspective. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites and together with Hispanics comprise more than 58% of all prisoners. I found it ironic that in its segregation, or alternatively, collection of foreigners regardless of their racial distinctions – Eastern European, Southeast Asian, Caribbean – a foreigners-only prison like HMP Huntercombe gives one a facade of racial equity and from this, the misleading assumption that the UK system might be less racially stratified than others.

My initial concerns about going to jail were simplistic and centered on how the men would receive me. How would they respond to me? Would they take me seriously? It seemed unlikely strangers would share their personal experiences, conviction details, and reflect with me. During my first visit, I was invited to a Vietnamese social gathering whereby an hour and a half was set aside each week for the Vietnamese men to gather and socialize in the chaplaincy. Here, many openly spoke of their experiences, often referring to me as ‘little sister,’ with a few also making reference to their siblings also in the UK and in school. We bonded over working in nail salons, and how many have found viable livelihoods here.

Contrary to my initial impressions, language did not appear an insurmountable challenge for the Vietnamese men. People are innovative and will find ways of communicating their needs. For instance, in his arrangements before his deportation, an inmate who spoke better English than the others pre-filled forms he knew other Vietnamese prisoners who did not speak English would eventually need. All his friends needed to do then was fill-in their names and change the date. In another instance, the men advocated for time together which resulted in the weekly social gathering Ines and I partook in during our last visit. These meetings seemed crucial in not only keeping up morale, but also in ensuring the men had a venue whereby they could update one another and exchange information. They recognized that by building solidarity and tapping into their resources as a unified group, they provided for one another in ways not knowing the language made difficult. For some, living in a prison designed exclusively to hold foreigners was not what made them feel different, but rather their lack of access to proper legal representation that ultimately fostered feelings of alienation and seemingly overwhelmed their expressed experiences as outsiders.

My visits to HMP Humbercome have left me with larger insights in regard to my own work in displacement conflict, and its many nuanced manifestations I look forward to investigating further. I very much enjoyed the thoughtful people I met at HMP Humbercome. Opening up about one’s personal hurdles is not easy, and I am immensely grateful for the hospitality and receptiveness I received.

See also other mini-posts from the series From the Field:

Any thoughts about this topic? How do you go about wrapping your research at a particular site? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us