As the Immigration Bill makes its way through Parliament, Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV) director, Kate Alexander, blogs about a conversation with ‘Lucy’, currently detained in Dungavel.
Cross-party support is growing to table an amendment to introduce a 28 day time limit on detention. On Thursday 7 February, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published the report of its inquiry into immigration detention and it joined the many other reports and inquiries in calling for a time limit.
It really feels as if, after many years of campaigning, we might be close to making that happen. But in all the excitement focused on parliament and political bargaining, it’s important not to forget to listen to the people who know most about detention and who are most affected by it: the thousands of people currently locked up indefinitely in detention centres (and prisons) across the UK.
These are the people SDV visits and talks to every week. One of them is ‘Lucy’. She is from an EU country and lived and worked in the UK for more than 20 years. She spent some time in prison and was taken straight to Dungavel at the end of her sentence. She’s been there for more than six months and, like everyone in immigration detention in the UK, has no idea when she will be released.
Our visitors have been visiting Lucy since she’s been detained. On social media, we offered people the chance to ask Lucy questions about the experience of being indefinitely detained. This blog is based on a conversation I had with her in which I asked her some of those questions.
Did you know anything about immigration detention before it happened to you? How long did you think you would stay there?
No, it was a complete surprise! In prison, they prepare you mentally for release. You feel frightened because you’ve been institutionalised and change is scary. But you know you’re prepared for it. And then they tell you you’re coming here and you feel totally and utterly abandoned by the system. I expected to be here for two or three weeks.
The physical environment in Dungavel is heaven compared to prison. You can go outside, go to the shop, use the gym and so on. Also the staff treat you like a human beings. But it’s worse because you don’t know when it will end.
If you were face to face with a politician who could change the immigration system, what would you say to them? And what should we say to them?
I wish I could come face to face with a politician! I’d ask the politician to come and spend a month in detention, live like us and see how you feel – get a taste of your own medicine.
There should be a time limit on detention. I’m not sure what the limit should be but it’s not right that it should be indefinite. It ruins lives. Everyone should say to politicians ‘put a time limit on detention’. It’s the biggest thing. In prison, you have your release date to work towards. Not here.
What is the best thing ordinary people can do to support you? What does solidarity mean to you?
For us, we know that SDV are coming every week and that’s something to look forward to. It makes our lives bearable to have a laugh with people, especially if you don’t get other visits.
If you were free to say anything to the Dungavel officers, what would you say to them?
There’s nothing I’m scared to tell them. The officers are so human. They’re full of compassion and try to make our lives better. It’s not the staff. It’s the Home Office. People sometimes say ‘I hate Scotland;’ but I say ‘the Scottish people hate detention. They’re on our side. It’s the Home Office in London that’s the problem’. All my anger is directed at the Home Office.
How do you spend your days in detention?
I work. I clean and do laundry. And then I keep myself busy. I knit. I help other people in detention with their paperwork, sometimes comfort them. I go to the gym, go to the library every day.
I’ve been here for a long time now and so have a few other people here. So we’re like a family. In that sense, we’re not lonely – we know there’s someone who cares about us. It’s our detention world.
What’s the hardest part of being detained?
Sometimes when visitors leave, I get emotional because I realise I’m cooped up in here. Outside becomes another planet. It really hits you.
Also, silly things like you work here, earn money. But you never see money. You forget what it looks like. I saw the new pound coin for the first time in here. My social worker had one, but I’d never seen it before.
What helps you sustain hope?
You need to keep busy. A lot of people just stay in bed. If you are strong enough mentally, hopefully you can share that strength with others and we can all keep our heads above water.
How do you keep in touch with the outside world?
We all have mobile phones and access to the internet but mobile reception isn’t good. Most people in here get some visits but lots of people have family who live a long way away so they can’t visit often. Sometimes you feel forgotten.
It’s important that organisations like SDV come to visit people and it’s also a way for ordinary people to find out about detention and what it’s like.
Do you have any sense of when any decisions will be made about your detention?
My lawyer is coming in to see me in a week or so, and my social worker. They’re going to be discussing an application for bail. It could happen quickly, but you don’t know.
It’s like Russian roulette. You can’t make plans.
If you agree with Lucy that people should not be detained indefinitely, unable even to make the plans that it’s possible to make in prison, please follow her suggestion and tell your MP that you want a 28-day time limit to be introduced. You can contact your MP here. Tell them it’s #Time4aTimeLimit so we can #EndIndefiniteDetention.
Thank you to everyone who posted a question for Lucy on social media and thank you to her for agreeing to answer them.
This blog post first appeared on the Scottish Detainee Visitors website.