Posted in politics, Poverty and Justice

When is a prison not a prison?

A wing at Brook House Two answers come to mind, after this afternoon: ‘when you call it an Immigration Removal Centre instead ‘ or perhaps more importantly ‘when people are deprived of their freedom who haven’t committed a crime’. Today I’ve visited Brook House, an IRC built on the same pattern as a Category B prison. For all that the management are trying to make it feel a bit more relaxed, there’s only so much you can do with a building which has classic H block prison wings. The fact that the residents are locked into their rooms (cells) for twelve hours each night is a bit of a clue too. As one of the current detainees explained to me, passionately, one of the big differences between an IRC and a prison is this – in prison you know when you’re going to be released. Detention is indefinite, and sometimes very long – years, maybe. And, strangely, we’re all very happy about it – we meaning the freedom-loving British public. To repeat, these are not people who are being held for committing a crime. The way we treat the people who end up in IRCs is really only explicable (I think) as an example of scapegoating, in the way it’s explained by Rene Girard – a society unconsciously loads its own tensions onto a specific group, whose expulsion would restore peace and order. But because a rational analysis would soon demonstrate that this wasn’t actually true, the scapegoating has to remain unconscious. Its presence is revealed by the increasingly bizarre and unrealistic justifications which are urged for persecuting the selected group, which depart further and further from reality. Recognise that, anyone? Today I’ve been the guest of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I was also privileged to meet several people still going through the asylum system, and to see the dignity with which they deal with the humiliations our system loads on them. The GDWG provide support, and give hope to many people who otherwise would have no-one to befriend them. I am hugely impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the people I met. The staff and volunteers of GDWG demonstrate that scapegoating is not inevitable. Girard argues that Jesus’ resurrection ends that cycle; whether or not they think of themselves in that way, I saw today, among the despair of Brook House, also the resurrection hope of a new way of living.