Post by Alice Gerlach, DPhil student at the Centre for Criminology. Alice, whose doctoral research is jointly funded by the ESRC and HMIP, is exploring the effectiveness of immigration removal centres (IRCs) in preparing detainees for removal or release. Follow Alice on Twitter @AliceGerlach.

Passing time in Colnbrook IRC (Photo: S Turnbull)
British Immigration Removal Centre Rules, published by the Home Office, state quite clearly that removal centres should “encourage and assist detained persons to make the most productive use of their time, whilst respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression.” While a quick review of the website for Yarl’s Wood, a centre for women and some families, reveals a wide range of activities, it's less clear whether these... would correlate to the desire for ‘most productive use of time’ suggested by the Home Office. Specifically, those advertised online are most definitely activities, such as access to a beautician for hair and nail services, rather than educational provision or work.

Last week the University of Oxford's Centre for Criminology hosted an academic symposium organised by the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET). The aim was to bring together academics with policy makers and practitioners to discuss education research in prisons, how it can be improved, who should be doing it, and how can the research be better joined up with policy. The day was punctuated by thought-provoking presentations from former prisoners working as researchers, academics, PhD students, and policy makers. The line-up resulted in interesting discussion and positive ideas for the future of education in prisons.

Education in removal centres
 With my current interest in immigration detention, I couldn’t help but notice how far behind removal centres seem from prisons. Academic literature and reports from NGOs concerned with the welfare of individuals in detention depict few productive activities at all. In most accounts, people spend their days ‘killing time’ sleeping or watching television. To be clear, I'm not calling for education programmes the likes of which we have in prisons to be rolled out in removal centres. What's required is something different, tailored to the unique situation the residents here find themselves in. Helping them to prepare for removal or release, for instance, would be a logical initiative that remains unexplored in most centres.

We have some generous funders for prisoner education, such as the PET. Their existence is built on the rationale that prisoners will one day be released into the community, and so, it's beneficial for everyone involved that prisoners are helped to become upstanding, employable members of the community. Perhaps the reason we don't have equivalent funders for removal centres is because of the unfortunate reality that individuals in such places are theoretically en-route to another country. On this logic, what happens to the women and men in IRCs post-detention is considered the responsibility of their home nations. This reasoning is, however, inadequate. Why is the destination more important than detention? Prisons, after all, don't consider prisoners the sole responsibility of the local authority to which they will be eventually be released, but part of a shared collective. In any case, nearly half of the women and men in detention are actually released back in the British community each year, sometimes permanently, sometimes for years on end while they wait for the outcome of an asylum or other application. What this means is that around 14,000 individuals a year are released into the UK community having spent little to no time on productive activities during their stay in detention. To put this in perspective, it’s the equivalent of not providing any relevant education to around 16 per cent of all the prisoners released from prison over the period of a year.

The arts and crafts room at Campsfield House IRC (Photo: S Turnbull)
30,000 people a year pass through immigration detention in the UK. That we deport many of them to another country without preparing them for the difficulties they face there is morally questionable, especially when individuals have spent substantial amounts of time sitting unproductively in detention. That we release individuals into the UK without preparation is morally indefensible, and begs the question why we treat this group so differently from how we treat British citizens. Surely education is a right to which all are entitled. As my research progresses, I'll be uncovering more details about what programs are on offer, and their impacts. I'm particularly interested in staff and detainee views of the connections between such courses and dignity. In the meantime, building on the Oxford symposium, I hope that the Prisoners Education Trust, and others like them, might consider whether their work could be applied to those in detention.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Gerlach A (2014) Education in Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).