Post by Dominic Aitken, DPhil candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

Professor Mary Bosworth and I recently completed two months of fieldwork in which we sought to understand the daily life of staff in immigration removal centres (IRCs). The two sites we visited had recently become one, at least in theory. IRCs Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, previously run by GEO and Serco respectively, came under the central management of Mitie in September 2014. They are now known as Heathrow IRC, though they are still physically separate buildings. Having done observations, much informal chatting, and formal interviews, what did we find? 

The work of detainee custody officers (DCOs) ranges from dealing with riots to mundane bureaucracy, usually leaning towards the latter. It is, according to one member of staff, ‘90% routine and 10% chaos.’ Detention is often acutely painful for detainees, and the outcomes of cases are by their very nature life-altering. That being said, detainees also have day-to-day concerns, and staff spend much of their time as administrators: giving out razors, toothbrushes, and toilet paper; filling out forms; and arranging meetings with doctors and lawyers. Staff primarily spoke of their roles in terms of needs and welfare, claiming that their job is to take care of detainees during their typically short stay, as distinct from deciding what should be done about particular cases. As one person put it,

I treat everyone equally, regardless of nationality, religion, personal history. I don’t look at their past or their background. We know absolutely nothing about their case. I see them as a human being first and foremost.

Indeed, DCOs often had to implement unpopular decisions or enforce rules they regarded as unfair. This, coupled with declining staffing levels, inexperienced new recruits, and long working hours, contributed to a draining and often demoralising work environment. On top of these organizational issues, staff are judged almost entirely by their failure to achieve outcomes over which they, as individual officers, have little control. A strong sense of camaraderie and daily banter did, however, make the lives of DCOs much more bearable. In fact, many said that despite the poor working conditions, erratic schedules, and consequent lack of social life, they couldn’t imagine working anywhere else, nor would they want to.

Returning to the humdrum of daily bureaucracy, it’s worth saying that administrative power isn’t the most immediately attractive subject matter. Much DCO work really is boring and unremarkable, be it the minutiae of managing lunch queues or processing requests for PlayStation controllers. Engaged in such work, staff often asked, ‘Why are you wasting your time hanging about with us?’ More interesting, perhaps, is the alienating effect of such routine. Busily handing out computer room passes and bottles of bleach, staff are seldom called upon to examine critically what all this maintenance is for. Being measured by outputs and what gets done, rather than what gets changed or achieved, sets the bar low for what it means to be a good IRC. Very few staff spoke critically of IRCs themselves, at most criticising the detention of particular individuals, usually those who are old and frail, clearly posing no threat to the community. Moreover, staff often appealed to a nebulous but apparently self-evident sense of authority to justify their actions, such as, 

At the end of the day, I am an officer and they are a detainee. We are the ones with the authority. I wear a uniform to work and that represents something, so they should do what I say.

Debates over material provisions―whether detainees should have TVs, or kettles, or internet access―easily replace more searching questions about the purposes and ethics of IRCs. Such discussions take the rather dubious premises of border control and deterrence as given, questioning only pragmatic issues such as whether there is a bit too much paperwork. This isn’t to criticise individual members of staff, many of whom were sincerely committed to making detention a more humane and tolerable experience. Rather, it’s to say that staff’s worldview and justifications were often shaped by institutional priorities and practical considerations, rather than more principled questions of justice or fairness.

Indeed, DCOs often spoke of art rooms and libraries as a convenient way to ‘keep them quiet and make our lives easier,’ saying that the media were wrong to call for more austere regimes. While many would agree that such ‘privileges’ ought to be provided, the justifications different people would offer are telling. The staff rationale was typically that, in the circumstances, incentives such as computer access are a practical solution to the problem of managing a difficult population. ‘These people on the outside don’t know what we’re dealing with in here,’ was a common refrain. A more principled defence, however, would surely start by saying that since detention isn’t punishment, such things are basic entitlements rather than indulgent privileges. Detention, as distinct from criminal punishment, should therefore be judged by the extent to which it resembles life outside, not how much worse it is. Whether computer access makes detainees calmer or more entitled is, on this account, neither here nor there.

Harmondsworth IRC. © Border Criminologies, Immigration Detention Archive

It’s worth remembering finally that a detainee, or ‘resident,’ population content to keep itself busy with computers, DVDs, and music rooms, probably requires fewer staff to manage it. Low numbers of DCOs, who require fewer qualifications to be accepted than was previously the case, were consistently mentioned in our discussions. Many older members of staff believed that new recruits should be at least 21, perhaps even 25, and have some measure of maturity and life experience prior to working in such complex environments. They told us that,

Anyone could get a job in here nowadays. They don’t even have maths and English requirements anymore, and you can tell when you read the reports some of them write.

The logic of cost-cutting is strong, however, and many staff believed that money-saving initiatives took precedence over the quality of staff in detention, many of whom were on older, better remunerated contracts. Both sites were previously run by private companies, but have changed much over the years with different managers, and shifting political and institutional priorities. We therefore need a more nuanced account of the effects of money-making detention than the monolith of ‘privatization,’ given the diverse experience of staff under different companies and circumstances.

The themes sketched above―administrative power, the effects of bureaucracy, and privatization―will hopefully be developed more fully in the coming months. While IRCs are something of a moving target, frequently changing in form and content with new ‘goals’ and ‘visions,’ these issues seem fundamental to how IRCs work. Understanding the role of staff in all its minutiae, and in terms of the bigger picture, is an essential aspect of a rigorous and critical account of immigration detention.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Aitken, D. (2015). Understanding Staff in IRCs. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/11/understanding (Accessed [date]).