Post by Francesca Esposito and Silvia Scirocchi. Francesca is a Doctoral Candidate in Community Psychology, ISPA-University Institute, Lisbon [supported by a grant of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (SFRH/BD/87854/2012)]. Silvia holds a Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Sapienza – University of Rome with a thesis on immigration detention in Italy developed in the frame of Francesca’s research. This is the third instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Exploring the everyday of immigration detention’, organised by  Annika Lindberg and Laura Rezzonico.

Despite the increasing scholarly attention to immigration detention around the globe, we know relatively little about life and the lived experiences of the people inside these sites of confinement, as Mary Bosworth points out. This is particularly true of the perspectives of professionals who provide services in these contexts.

Acknowledging this gap, as part of Francesca’s research project about life inside immigration detention centres in Italy and in Portugal and Silvia’s Master’s thesis, we turned our attention to the lived experiences of people working in Rome’s detention centre, Ponte Galeria. Our research focused on the experiences of two groups: a) staff members working for the managing body who were in charge of providing detainees with basic assistance; b) external professional actors (human right advocates, volunteers of faith-based organizations and religious congregations, lawyers and journalists) entering Ponte Galeria either to provide aid to detainees or to monitor and report on detention condition. By looking at the experiences of these distinct groups of professionals, we sought to understand the complexities, struggles and contradictions of working inside a custodial environment. We also witnessed how security and humanitarian logics are intertwined and produced in practice under the framework of immigration law and policies. In other words, we observed the material everyday effects of what Giuseppe Campesi has defined ‘migration control through humanitarianism.’

In Italy, the system of immigration detention was set up in the 1990s, when the first detention centres were opened in response to the so called ‘Albanian emergency,’ also depicted as an ‘invasion’ (on the history of migrant detention in Italy see, for example, Giuseppe Campesi). Since its inception, a specific feature of immigration detention in Italy has been the outsourcing of management and service provision to private entities, usually humanitarian agencies (such as social cooperatives) and, more recently, to private multinational companies. Consistent with the government’s effort to humanise detention, any official reference to the concept of ‘detention’ has been avoided. The euphemism ‘trattenimento’ (literally ‘withholding’) has been used instead to refer to the confinement of legally produced non-citizens.

Ponte Galeria, Rome (Photo: Mario Badagliacca)

Previously run by humanitarian agencies (Red Cross and Auxilium), since December 2014 Ponte Galeria is managed by a partnership of the French company Gepsa [Management of Auxiliary Prison Services], a subsidiary of Cofely, which belongs to the energy multinational GDF Suez, and the Italian cultural association Acuarinto (see here). These agencies provide detainees with basic assistance (e.g., food, cleaning), legal advice, psychosocial and medical care, and cultural and linguistic mediation. Security (maintaining order and security inside the facility, performing identification and deportation of migrants) remains in the hands of the police.

Coming from a humanitarian background, staff members seek to offer ‘assistance’ and ‘help’ to detainees. These values and aspirations, however, come into conflict with the repressive nature of the detention system itself. As a result, misunderstandings about the professional mandate of staff members as well as the ambit in which they are called to operate frequently occur. In their accounts, for instance, humanitarian staff members usually refer to detainees as ‘guests.’ They describe Ponte Galeria as a place where migrants can find ‘humane assistance’ while awaiting a decision on their cases. ‘It is not a prison,’ they point out, at times even referring to it as a ‘reception centre.’ Even when detention is acknowledged as a form of imprisonment, staff members depict their professional role as standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with detainees and guaranteeing their fundamental rights.

Detainees, however, see the role of staff differently. For many, these staff members are simply their ‘jailers.’ They blame them for their detention, and even if they understand their distinction from the police, they are often mistrustful and sceptical about their intentions. In short, detainees question the humanitarian value of staff’s work.

Still, emotions such as sympathy and compassion are able to bloom in a detention setting, even when least expected. As Alexandra Hall underlined, the emotional connection that staff members at times establish with detainees, relying on the acknowledgment of a common humanity and vulnerability, has the potential to challenge the sovereign distinctions between ‘political citizen’ and ‘abject life’ on which the detention system rely and, at the same time, produce. Therefore, in her view, the emergence of empathy can be seen as ‘an incongruous and disruptive emotional project.’

Female dining hall of Ponte Galeria (Photo: Mario Badagliacca)


As our findings suggest, external service providers, namely, human right advocates, volunteers of faith-based organizations and religious congregations, lawyers, and journalists, also have to navigate tensions, challenges, and dilemmas in carrying out their work in detention. Whilst, in general, they do not perceive detention in a positive way, and in some cases they even manifest an overtly abolitionist position, they choose to carry out their professional activities inside these institutions. In doing so, they work both to provide individual support to detainees (moral, legal and psychosocial aid), and to change the system and its rules. Understanding their mission to be a political one is what actually drives them to keep offering their services in such a coercive site in spite of the numerous challenges they have to face (restrictions concerning access to the centre and detainees, lack of information and collaboration on the part of police and, at times, of the managing body). Many of them, especially human rights advocates, are critical of their presence in detention, expressing concerns about their indirect ‘complicity’ with the operation of the detention system (see also Kotsioni). These concerns are also echoed by anti-detention activists, some of whom regard their choice of ‘entering inside’ as having the de facto effect of legitimising the detention institution.

Such tensions have implications for the relationship that these independent professionals develop with detainees. Due to their limited time and resources, they are only able to provide support that benefits a small number of people incarcerated in Ponte Galeria. Therefore, they are constantly confronted with the uneasy task of deciding whom to help or not. Whereas not responding to detainees’ needs causes professionals stress and frustration, the opportunity to ‘save’ someone from deportation and to help them be released and start a life in Italy, is what provides them with the energy and motivation to continue their work. In many cases, their relationship with detainees continues outside the gates of Ponte Galeria, and at times even develops into friendships.

The library in Ponte Galeria’s female living unit, used by human rights advocates (Photo: Francesca Esposito)

As several scholars have highlighted, especially with regards to refugee camps and reception centres for asylum seekers (see, for example, Agier; Fassin; Harrel-Bond), an increasing intersection between control and assistance characterises the enforcement of migration policies. The Italian case, where immigration detention centres have been officially described as ‘places to provide assistance to migrants while in the process of being deported’ (Campesi), while entrusting their management to private entities with a humanitarian background, is emblematic in this regard. In particular, it is indicative of how a humanitarian discourse has been used to mask the fragmentations, power inequalities, and colonial legacies on which contemporary practices of border control, such as immigration detention, are grounded in Italy. This discourse further contributes to normalise the inherent violence of these institutions in the eyes of the broader public (see Cadeddu; Di Cesare). In so doing, it fosters a politics of compassion rather than of justice, and a fantasy of redemption aimed at feeding Western White morality.

When analysing this model of humanitarian government, we, at the same time, should always remember that inside these institutions there are people, detainees as well as professionals. People who have aspirations, desires, values, goals and emotions. They are the ones who experience the material effects of the detention regime, while also being part of its reproduction. As such, understanding their experiences, in their complexities and contradictions, is important in getting the full grasp of how the regime works. As argued by Agier, it is indeed from this ‘attention to detail, to the grain of dust that jams the machinery, the recalcitrant words of individuals about roles assigned to them’ that we can actually ‘learn and transmit most.’ We hope that this blog post provides a platform for the ‘recalcitrant words’ of those who, in a variety of ways, find themselves carrying out professional activities in these sites of confinement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Esposito, F. and Scirocchi, S. (2017) Working in Immigration Detention in Italy: Navigating the Tensions Between Security and Humanity, Repression and Compassion, Inside and Outside. Available at: (Accessed [date]).