Guest post by Raquel Matos, a senior lecturer at the Catholic University, Portugal. Raquel's work centres on matters of gender, crime, and imprisonment. In this post, she reflects on her current research project among female detainees in Unidade Habitacional de Santo Antonio, an immigration detention centre in Oporto, Portugal.
Every time I enter the "Unit" at Unidade Habitacional de Santo Antonio I can’t stop thinking about the paradox that I’m entering a place where I feel welcome as a researcher to talk to women who aren’t welcome to this country. Under the scope of different research projects, I have, for the past several years, listened to many women who found themselves in prison. Now facing women incarcerated simply for not being citizens and for not having permission to walk on Portuguese soil, I’ve been questioning further the politics of incarceration. If I had any doubts about the imprisonment of many women on the grounds of their criminal conviction, without a conviction how could their imprisonment be justified? And how did they deal with it?
I was surprised when I started talking to women at the Unit. I knew that many found themselves in trouble for being involved with men who ‘disempowered’ them, but what I had not peviously appreciated was not only the prevalence of this abuse but also the deep consequences that may arise from it. Maria’s story is testament to how the lack of citizenship can be used as a control device within the context of a marital relationship. This had been her story over the previous years, and was the reason for her detention.“I’ve been living in Portugal for the past 10 years,” she started. “I have a boyfriend and we’ve been living together for a while now.” She then told me that her boyfriend was visiting her daily, and how he was very concerned about her situation. Every day he promised her the same: “I will take you out of here as soon as possible.” I remember a quick thought crossed my mind about the positive side of having someone nearby to visit her. But my thoughts changed as she went on with her story.
When I asked her about the conditions under which she was detained, she started crying, saying “I don’t want to talk about it.” But she then continued: “It was at home.” I was surprised: “At home? Did someone report your situation to the authorities?” “Well, it’s kind of complicated,” she answered. “It was not a bad relationship, but in a difficult moment, as it happens to any couple, he used this ‘trick’.” As she went on I realized that the 'trick' had been used several times in recent years, only this time what she feared the most had actually happened. “Now he says we can get married, but I know it’s too late.”
It was a striking story―one that led me to reflect once again on the impact of gender on women’s incarceration.
As with my previous research on foreign national women in prison, this project about women’s administrative detention seeks to challenge assumptions about gender relations and the incarceration of foreign women. In doing so, I wish to reveal the ways that gender impacts women’s lives that may lead to detention, including migration, criminal activity, and abusive relationships and other forms of gendered control.
See also other recent From the Field mini-posts: