Guest post by Dan Godshaw, doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, and member of the Bristol Institute for Migration and Mobility Studies. Dan regularly visits Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, and is currently conducting research and support work at the centre with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

A cell in Brook House covered in blood following a suicide attempt by a detainee. Source: BBC Panorama

As the opening footage of abuse and neglect at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) rolled out on BBC’s Panorama programme, Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets, on Monday, my eyes filled with tears and I felt panic ripple through my body. Having visited people held under immigration powers at the centre over the last four years and currently finishing a six month stint as a researcher and support worker with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), the scenes were personal and hard-hitting. Recognising the signs of vicarious trauma surfacing, I nearly switched it off.

The undercover report suggested that for some of those detained at Brook House, the trauma they can experience is exponentially worse. Filmed by a Detention Custody Officer (DCO) turned whistle-blower, the footage showed apparent emotional and physical abuse of detainees by staff employed by G4S, the private security company that manages the centre for the Home Office. The abuse shown seems to have been carried out by DCOs, managers and even a nurse. It included mocking and bullying, failing to provide appropriate care to people in acute states of psychological distress, threatening behaviour and several instances of gratuitous, dangerous physical violence. While I have encountered many frontline staff at Brook House who appear dedicated and concerned for the well-being those under their care, the exceptions filmed were shocking –  the words of one DCO before attempting a forced deportation of someone with a serious heart condition and mental health problems, ‘if he dies, he dies’, were hard to bear. The programme also documented what those who work on detention are all too aware of – the existence and catastrophic harm of prolonged and indefinite incarceration, the complex and dynamic vulnerabilities of those detained, and the culture of hostility and unaccountability that engulfs the UK immigration system.

While attention to the day-to-day running of an IRC is welcome, this culture extends far beyond G4S and Brook House. I’m currently conducting research for GDWG on the detention of people who arrived in the UK when they were children which will be published later this year. It shows that local authorities, the criminal justice system and, most significantly, the Home Office, demonstrate shocking levels of disregard for the wellbeing and futures of young migrants who are often already traumatised by their experiences in early life. These research participants, along with others who come into contact with the Home Office through its immigration apparatus experience acutely the effects of the ‘hostile environment’ – a policy strategy which Prime Minister Theresa May conceived during her time as Home Secretary. This continued effort seeks to make life impossible for people without permission to be in the UK and is supported by mainstream media and, since the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, by universities, schools, landlords, banks, employers, the NHS, and even charities. Seen in this light, it is hard not to conclude that terrible conditions inside detention align perfectly with government policy.

Brook House is one of nine IRCs operating in the UK, holding nearly 30 000 people a year in indefinite, prison-like conditions. Access to the centres is highly restricted by the Home Office and the companies that run them for researchers and NGOs, and perhaps for good reason – the government has been found to have detained hundreds of people unlawfully, and has repeatedly been judged by the High Court to have breached the European Convention on Human Rights by causing inhuman and degrading treatment. And yet, the use of immigration detention shows little sign of waning. While this might lead us to ponder the policy impact that the programme may make, the timing of this documentary is significant. It aired on the same day that Stephen Shaw began his second review into the use of immigration detention for the Home Office in a follow up to his initial report in 2016. James Wilson, Director of GDWG, said:

‘We condemn any incidents of abuse and violence towards those in detention, and call for the allegations to be investigated thoroughly. We also believe the documentary shines a light on the wider issue of indefinite detention. The UK is the only country in Europe that does not have a time limit for detention. The effects of detention – regardless of someone’s background before being detained – have a profound impact on mental health and lead many to despair. We welcome the start of Stephen Shaw’s review into immigration detention. Following the APPG enquiry and Stephen Shaw’s first review in 2016, the government promised substantial detention reform, but have manifestly failed to deliver it.’

The visible trauma and distress exhibited by the film-maker, Callum Tully, and a former G4S manager in the programme was depressingly familiar. As practitioners, activists and academics, it is easy to overlook the fact that some staff may be struggling to cope with the realities of detention as much as we are. During my time working in Brook House as well as wider engagement with detention activism, I have weaved between anger, optimism, hopelessness, strength and all-out despair, and have witnessed colleagues break down and burn out. The work that we do to support those detained, document injustice and push for change is slow and laborious. Our efforts are always an uphill struggle, and sometimes we feel like we are going nowhere. While we may hear and retell stories of the kinds of abuse shown on Monday, it is unlikely that our energies can produce the ‘shock factor’ of BBC Panorama and recent Channel 4 exposés on Yarls Wood and Harmondsworth.

Events like this, however, provide an opportunity for voices from detention to be heard. By sharing our research and experiences, engaging in activism, lobbying parliamentarians and contributing to Shaw’s review, we may help to bring about meaningful change. I didn’t switch the TV off on Monday despite the sadness and discomfort I experienced. We must use this opening to make it impossible for government ministers to switch off to the intense suffering caused by their brutal policies on immigration and the culture this has helped to create.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Godshaw, D. (2017) Traumatic Openings: BBC Panorama at Brook House IRC. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/09/traumatic (Accessed [date])