Post by Alice Gerlach. Alice is near the completion of a DPhil at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford. Her collaboratively funded ESRC-HMIP DPhil examines immigration enforcement in the UK with a particular focus on women who have spent time in immigration removal centres and their conceptions of dignity. Before starting her DPhil, Alice worked for two years as a researcher at HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Alice is on Twitter @AliceGerlach. This is the third instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Immigration Detention in an Era of Mass Mobility' organised by Mary Bosworth.

In legal terms, Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in the UK are not prisons. Therefore, the incarceration of people within them is not a punishment. Yet in my research, women held in these centres have made it clear that they do feel they are being punished. More specifically, those I interviewed felt they were treated as though they were the worst type of offender, which they described to be ‘murderers’ ‘rapists’ or ‘terrorists.’ Being incarcerated, they said, was unfair and unjust. As a result, the women felt offended, hurt and stigmatised by their imprisonment. Many suffered from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, loss of concentration, self-esteem and confidence which they blamed on their time spent in detention.

Serious mental health issues are not considered the ‘norm’ for people held in regular prisons. Instead we must turn to the literature on those who believe they have been wrongly convicted, and those who are serving indefinite sentences to find anything similar. These groups, like immigration detainees perceive their imprisonment to be unjust, unfair or disproportionate punishment.   

Ideas of justice and legitimacy are important psychological defences for many prisoners. They help them negotiate the pains they suffer during incarceration (see work by Crewe and Skyes). Prisoners who are wrongly convicted or who are serving an indefinite sentence lack this defence, as their incarceration feels unjust or disproportionate. As a result, these kinds of prisoners have a harder time dealing with imprisonment and can suffer from long-term damages to their mental and physical health. The few projects which have delved into these subjects suggest men suffer from social isolation, depression and PTSD. (see work by Campbell & Denov, Crewe,  Grounds, and Jamieson & Grounds).      

In my own research, like that conducted by other members of Border Criminologies, especially Mary Bosworth, Ines Hasselberg, Melanie Griffiths and Sarah Turnbull, I have found that women who have spent time in immigration detention do not believe they have been treated with justice or legitimacy. They feel that their detention is unjust and that the government does not have legitimate reasons to detain them. They are often particularly troubled by the indefinite nature of detention in the UK. Τhe small body of literature available on individuals who have been held in immigration detention suggests that individuals suffer from long-term damages to their mental and physical health (see work by Bosworth , HMIP & ICIBI,  Griffiths,  Silove, Steel, & Mollica, and Silverman & Massa) .   

Paying attention to matters of injustice and illegitimacy reveals the importance of dignity. Dignity, taken at face value, encapsulates the idea that people are worth something due to their status as human beings. The women in my study reported that being detained had offended their sense of dignity.  To be imprisoned for overstaying a visa was disproportionate, and to be imprisoned after seeking asylum even more so. For ex-offenders, an indefinite stay in detention was perceived as inconsistent with their often minor criminal offences. Women felt wounded vilified and unwanted by their detention.  In some cases, they had begun to internalise feelings of worthlessness. Those whom I interviewed in the UK community post-detention were especially haunted by thoughts of what it was they had done wrong to deserve imprisonment. Others, who had been removed to Jamaica after overstaying a visa were similarly distressed by their expulsion from Britain. Women in Jamaica struggled to reconcile their identities as good, church going mothers and grandmothers with this severe rejection. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that they reported severe levels of stress, anxiety, depression and an overall lessening in their confidence and self-esteem.   

I still have some work to do to link legitimacy and dignity together with my own research findings. Connecting the literature on wrongful conviction, indefinite prison sentences and detention experiences is a new angle from which to explore immigration detention and so it will take some time to develop. Nonetheless, I hope it will prove fruitful and can be added to the growing literature that is trying to make sense of the pains of immigration detention around the world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Gerlach A. (2017) The Pains of Detention: Exploring the Concepts of Justice, Legitimacy and Dignity. Available at: (Accessed [date])