Etched on the back of the bathroom door, a bird singing with an illegible word scrawled above it. Another stall simply had the word ‘Rekan’, meaning comrade or brother in Indonesian. My first impression of the Trandum detention centre outside of Oslo, Norway were made in the WC. Lacking the graffiti of Trandum’s WC, Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport WC still left an impression—broken toilets, lack of toilet paper, doors that wouldn’t lock.
Why would I start with this aspect of my experience? Why would I expect anyone to keep reading when I am talking about a place that is usually left un-talked about in polite company?*
Not claiming that either space is in anyway a particular metaphor for the detention centre, the answer is simply that I am unsure. I think, perhaps, this post is meant to help me consider and collect threads which struck me on my recent trip to these two detention centres and doesn’t really have to have a cohesive message. Feel free to quit now if this format is making you grimace—it doesn’t get much better from here.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning and perhaps chronology will help me convey something sensical about these visits. Travelling in conjunction with the Leverhulme Network, which brought together researchers from three universities who focused on the intersection of borders and criminology, I was invited to visit these two aforementioned detention centres. Before finally deciding on the affirmative, I considered the realities—no because of the vulnerability of the population, yes because it would help me to better understand the experience of the women I had interviewed, no because it might be very emotional, yes because…well, you get the picture here. In the end, I decided this experience was necessary to better understand not only the similarities and difference between these two spaces, but also to place them in relation to the Australian detention centres that I had been forbidden from entering, other than through the stories which had been shared with me by refugee and asylum-seeking women.
Trandum halls seemed deserted, quiet, and sterile with the inmates banished to the outside spaces while we toured the facility, only to be viewed through the glass, evoking uncomfortable zoo-like feelings. Harmondsworth was chaotic, loud, and dirty with the inmates loitering where they chose and sometimes interacting with us—one of them speaking to me about wearing his football team colours and another mentioning the broken washing machine. Where there is almost one guard to every person in Trandum, there were two guards to a large wing in Harmondsworth. Both employ locked cells from 9 pm to 8 am and both staff dressed and were equipped like the prison guards whom I had met in US prisons. While Harmondsworth outdoor spaces were concrete and wilted grass, Trandum was lush and backed up against a forest. Both were encased in fences and barbwire and had all the trappings of security one would expect.
Mandatory strip searches versus no strip searches, lengths of stay, facilities, education, activities—similarities/differences, comparisons/contrasts. But maybe you haven’t read this far to be given a list of random comparisons which have stuck in my memory of these visits? How did it make me feel? How do I make sense of these spaces?
While I can’t speak to the other researchers, I can say I certainly didn’t leave either centre feeling like I had been convinced of the necessity which both staff maintained. Overly simple and certainly not surprising considered that I was already predisposed to this viewpoint, but I would say that walking through these halls, seeing those who resided there, and being in their personal spaces has helped me to further understand the damaging consequences of immigration detention and the waiting game which dictates their existence.
* Weirdly enough after writing this piece, I went to the British Society of Criminology Conference and found the keynote by Eilliott Currie focused on the idea of ‘sh** hits the fan’ criminology, so perhaps taboo spaces and difficult topics are on all criminologists minds right now
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