Here at Border Criminologies we are creating an archive of UK immigration detention. This archive, which we will initially digitise, but hope eventually to house in a physical collection, will collect a range of types of material culture produced by and about detention. The kinds of items we are collating include: music CDs, detainee letters, artwork, photographs, life histories, cookbooks, copies of official regulations, and other documentation.

As the collection grows, we will scan items and make them freely available on our website. There they will join other forms of evidence and debate, such as blog posts, podcasts, academic reports, and, soon, a public access SSRN journal. Standing alongside these more traditional forms of academic output, we believe that the items produced by detainees and in detention offer a particular perspective on this form of custody.

As Gillian Whitlock noted in her account of a similar collection held by the Queensland University library, items produced in detention can be interpreted in many ways. On the one hand, they offer an enduring reminder of people’s creativity, even during periods of great uncertainty and distress. In their physicality, they make real the detention experience, reminding us of the people working and living in these places. The different things produced by detainees might reveal aspects of detention and border control that others have not considered.

 In the items in our collection, we catch a glimpse of cultural exchange, as men and women share craft techniques and designs, teaching one another origami, talking about landscapes and music from their pasts (and presents). Arts and crafts teachers play a role in this exchange, bringing in equipment, trying out new techniques, offering a space for creative expression. Items created in conjunction with others, such as the music CDs by Music in Detention, remind us of the scope for cooperation across walls. Although tie-dyed t-shirts cannot help resolve immigration matters, nor can mosaics or beaded key rings, each of these items, and the thousands of others produced in detention, reveal the everyday ways in which men and women try to cope, pass time, and make friends.

Criminologists have not traditionally been all that interested in or at ease with material culture. We are far more used to interpreting words than objects. In putting the archive together, we hope to encourage criminologists and other researchers to consider the sorts of everyday items that are produced in spaces of confinement, including the connections these materials have to issues of identity, agency, and resistance in everyday life.

We hope that in building an archive we can engage with a range of groups and organisations within and outside immigration removal centres (IRCs), along with detainees. This collection will, we believe, be a useful resource for future researchers, as well as for those interested in life in detention in the present. If you have items you’d like to contribute, please contact us at or via post.

Any thoughts? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Border Criminologies (2014) Archiving Detention: Learning from Material Culture. Available at: (Accessed [date]).