Post by Mary Bosworth, Director of Border Criminologies. This is the third instalment of the themed series on the Border Criminologies September workshop on Race, Migration and Criminal Justice, offering a summary of the main points of Mary’s presentation. The papers from this workshop will appear in 2017 in a book edited by Mary Bosworth, Alpa Parmar and Yolanda Vázquez and published by Oxford University Press. You can read the storify story of the #RaceMigCJ workshop here

Designed as places to expel unwanted foreign citizens, Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) are sites where contemporary concerns about religion, ethnicity and culture mix with enduring, colour-coded matters of race. Nearly all of the women and men locked up in these carceral institutions are members of an ethnic minority. Most of the staff who confine them are white. Race, however, is rarely described by officers or detainees in simple, binary terms. Not only are some staff members themselves migrants, or children of immigrants, but the sheer cultural and linguistic diversity of the confined population prevents any simple articulation of race or racism.

For the most part, at least when faced with a university researcher, officers couch their views in national stereotypes. ‘Algeria, North Africa and the Middle East are self-harmers, unlike the Africans, who love their bodies too much-they’re in the gym all the time. Instead, they do dirty protests,’ one manager asserted confidently. ‘The Chinese can put up a fight, though you wouldn’t always know it’, he went on, ‘They speak very little English.’ His female colleague, in the same institution, took a similar view, telling me earnestly, that, ‘I believe that, if you get a guy from Vietnam... he's been growing cannabis. You get a guy from Jamaica – he's brought drugs into the country. You get a guy from Poland – petty theft, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly. Don't even have to look.’

Photo: Mary Bosworth
National stereotypes animate and intersect with other beliefs about crime and gender.  According to one female officer, who had worked in detention for many years, Jamaicans do not really suffer in detention, ‘they’ll quite happily buy their own ticket and go back… they’ll just get a new passport and come back again… we’ve seen the same faces with different names coming through the system 'cause they get picked up again for doing drugs or whatever have you.’ In contrast, another woman officer believed that Iraqis were particularly difficult to manage because they ‘don't respect women in their culture; women are nothing.’ Her female co-worker, took matters event further, telling me earnestly that detainees ‘really are like children: you just need to set them to a task.’ 

Such views, in which non-whites are childlike, Blacks are criminal, Chinese devious, Asians compliant and all Muslims hate women, are depressingly familiar and deeply racialised. Yet, even as officers spoke at length about the population in these terms, only one of them was explicitly racist and even then, she was not talking about the detainees, but about South Africa which, she told me casually over chicken Kiev in the staff lunchroom, ‘was ruined when they handed it back to the natives, who've run it into the ground. The same thing is happening in the UK…’  

It may be that many officers agree with this kind of view, but are sufficiently well-versed in race-equality policy, not to say it aloud to a researcher. The 2015 Channel 4 undercover reporting in Yarl’s Wood IRC certainly suggests that some officers express discriminatory views in private. Given the logic of exclusion, I think we would be naïve to think otherwise. This does not mean, of course, that all officers are racist.

In my own research, race (and ethnicity) are often deployed by staff and detainees as a way of making sense of IRCs, those around them, their experiences and, in the case of officers, their job. It is not, in other words, that some people are racist and others are not, but that ideas about race operate as ordering mechanisms, and, for staff in particular, as a kind of expertise, which helps them to manage the painful aspects of their job and its contested legitimacy.  When viewed in this way, ‘positive’ and celebratory accounts of race and, more commonly, of ‘diversity’ become just as illuminating as pejorative ones.

National stereotypes in these examples help Detention Custody Officers (DCOs) differentiate themselves from prison officers. Their ‘residents’ are from all over the world, exciting, different.  National stereotypes, whether positive or negative, also create emotional distance. Most obviously, they essentialize detainees by allocating them to a generalised subject position – whether criminal, or compliant -- rather than recognising them as individuals. Ostentatiously celebrating diversity has a similar effect.

Staff often praise the diversity of the detained population. The sheer range of people they encounter in their job is one of the qualities they enjoy most. ‘It is just a big mixing pot of different ages and races,’ one man asserted enthusiastically, ‘and I think that's fantastic. I love it…. I think that's partially the reason I stayed in this job for as long as I have, is it's... it isn't what they're going through; it's all of their, their history. I find that fascinating, the fact that you've got guys in here from East Africa and South America and the Far East, and how their life experiences and trauma and this and that has all led them to end up in here, on some little island in Europe. I just find it really interesting how they've all been through various different ways, but they've all ended up here. So yeah.’

‘I grew up in a predominantly white area,’ another officer explained. ‘Coming here was the first time I'd probably spoken to anybody from Pakistan, or spoken with anybody from West Africa.’ An appreciative stance towards diversity domesticates it, converting what he is witnessing – the mass incarceration of men from the global south – into an amusing source of exotic expertise. ‘In my local restaurants,’ he said laughingly, ‘I've ordered in Punjabi… And the, the look on the waiter's face is that of just absolute horror, that some white bloke with his head shaved and tattoos is speaking in his language. But I think it's hilarious, so...’

As with custodial matters more broadly, staff views on race,ethnicity and their effects are an amalgamation, brought in from outside, and shaped by the IRCs themselves. Whereas some officers claimed to be unaffected – ‘the work doesn’t impact my, my views on immigration at all. I still, I still have my views, really’ – others, were less sure. ‘I'd like to say working here hasn’t affected my views of immigration,’ one man explained, 'but I think it has. I think there are stories I read, and you're either swayed one way or another. And I think a lot of it depends on what kind of week you've had. For instance, if you've had a week that's been heavily influenced by the kind of Arabic nations, and you've had a fairly stressful week, and they've been fairly problematic, then you might sway heavily on the, 'I don't want any more guys from that area coming in.' But then if you've had a week where you've helped out three or four guys from that area, and they've been respectful and polite, then you sway the other way. So I think I haven't got any cut and fast opinions on any of them. I think I am heavily swayed by who I've interacted with.'

Although staff narratives vary, and do not fit seamlessly into a colour-coded view of race, they remain heavily racialised. Nationality provides the means to express quite traditional opinions that construct a hierarchy among people. The hierarchy, as ever, is heavily tilted towards particular beliefs, in which foreigners never quite measure up to ‘Britishness’ or, indeed, white Englishness. As the literature on immigration detention develops, we need to pay more attention to these matters in order to understand better the social relations within these sites and their impact on the wider community.

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