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Clara Della Croce, Prisoner and Detainee Project Co-ordinator at Asylum Welcome, writes about their pilot project visiting people in HMP Huntercombe following the closure of Campsfield House IRC in late 2018. Twitter:@AsylumWelcome (Approximate read time: 10 mins)

Asylum Welcome's Huntercombe Visiting Project is possible thanks to the support from The Bromley Trust.

It was a busy Friday afternoon in the office; on the 9th November 2018. The volunteers and myself were trying to finalise multiple tasks, including contacting people detained at Campsfield House immigration removal centre, when the telephone rang. It was the office of the MP representing Kidlington, on the outskirts of Oxford, where Campsfield House was. I am told that the Home Office had decided to close Campsfield House by May 2019 and this is the first time I am hearing about the closure: I listen quietly, not quite grasping the extent of what is being said.

For a decade, I had been going to see the men in Campsfield; people who were incarcerated under an unfair and hostile detention system. Many had committed no criminal offence but were detained for ‘administrative convenience’; others, who had been in prison and already paid for the crimes they had committed, were being held indefinitely under immigration powers because they were deemed as “foreigners” and were not welcome in the UK.

I, alongside many others, had been campaigning for the end of immigration detention. So I was thrilled to hear of the closure of Campsfield, but yet, I found myself thinking a million thoughts at once. What about the people currently detained in Campsfield? Many were so vulnerable; I knew of their testing stories, where were they going? If, according to the Home Office statement, Campsfield’s closure was part of its 40% reduction in immigration detention numbers, what was next for the people affected? A happy thought also occurred to me: all detention centres will be eventually closed - was that possible?

We stood back in celebration. People around me, Asylum Welcome colleagues, and volunteer visitors to Campsfield House, all had similar feelings of incredulity and elation, but we were foremost concerned with the welfare of the people held there. Volunteers reported mixed feelings of joyfulness to see a detention centre closing but also apprehension for the men who could end up in a worse situation. These were people who explained to us that being in Campsfield was terribly depressing and stressful but that being in other detention centres, where the regime was stricter, treatment harsher and food ‘disgusting’, was far worse. At least in Campsfield, they said, some staff cared for their wellbeing. We, volunteers and people detained at Campsfield, were so familiar with the Home Office practices of moving individuals between prisons and among detention centres, and the level of distress that this practice raises for peoples’ welfare as well as the detrimental impact on their mental health. We were all very apprehensive about their future in immigration detention.

In Campsfield, volunteers provided continuous help and support to every man who sought our assistance. There was no distinction regarding their background or immigration status, we helped asylum seekers, refugees, victims of trafficking, overstayers as well as people with past convictions coming out of prison. Our visitors came from a diverse range of backgrounds and training (medical training, social workers, lawyers, aid workers, students of different subjects, and affiliations). They spoke a wide range of languages, which helped when providing emotional support in someone’s own language. From the office, we followed cases, communicating with a wide range of people and agencies on behalf of people detained such as lawyers, probation services, family, friends, and doctors. We also liaised with other agencies such as social services and the police on their behalf. Our volunteers with medical training saw first-hand the long-lasting effects of immigration detention on the mental and physical health of people detained and sought to provide more specialised support to our clients. We helped in practical ways and financially too by collecting belongings from police stations or previous accommodation to be reunited with someone prior to their removal or deportation, and by topping up their phones to allow them to talk to family and friends and to their legal representatives. Stories of help, support, compassion, solidarity, and lessons of resilience abounded throughout the 25 years Asylum Welcome was present in Campsfield House, sometimes every day of the week.

By mid-December 2018 Campsfield house was empty. The remaining few people detained there were transferred to other immigration removal centres and a few got bail. We kept in touch with some of our clients, primarily those whose bail had been granted in principle but had no suitable accommodation by the closure date. We continued to liaise with their probation officers and lawyers early into the new year. Our volunteers showed great compassion towards their ‘visitees’. When we knew where former clients were sent to, we also referred them to other visiting groups around the UK. In some cases, it was very frustrating as we did not get to know what had happened to them after Campsfield.

In the new year, everyone, volunteers and staff in Asylum Welcome were all resolute that we needed to continue supporting people experiencing detention; it was important to us to provide support to those who were excluded, isolated and often forgotten. We were aware that there were two prisons near Oxford which held ‘foreign’ nationals: HMP Huntercombe and HMP Bullingdon. The possibility of offering our support in a prison environment made volunteers rethink their rationale for volunteering; one said to me: “I have never considered those in Campsfield as people who had committed a crime, although there were many. However, I have now to be conscious of the fact that this is the case for a prison.” Above all, I personally think that what moved each one of us towards replicating our solidarity with people incarcerated in a prison was a shared sense of compassion; the thought of the “men locked up, isolated, cut off from their families, with no certainty about their futures and limited legal support. Many with poor English and so are even more cut off.” These thoughts showed us, volunteers, and staff, including myself, how crucial human contact and practical help had been and could be for many of them.

After getting consent from our board of trustees for a pilot project to get started, we contacted HMP Huntercombe whose governor was very positive about our potential support to the men there. Drawing upon our experience in Campsfield House we hoped to provide human contact and a bridge to the outside world.

Huntercombe is a Category C prison with an exclusive foreign national population where some people do not speak English at all, hence there was a particular interest in the wide-ranging language skills of our volunteers who are often able to support prisoners in their native language - a great comfort to many of them.

Image: Steve Daniels / The entrance to HMP Huntercombe

Huntercombe, as opposed to Campsfield, is a quieter, more orderly place, giving the impression of a calmer environment; possibly because inmates know why they are there, and when their sentences finish. In Campsfield, like all immigration removal centres, I saw people who had to cope with the uncertainty of being held indefinitely, provoking a strong feeling of anxiety regarding their future. In Huntercombe, I see that same uncertainty as to whether they would be released at the end of their sentence or transferred to an immigration removal centre and held for an indefinite period of time or if they are going to be put onto a plane back ‘home’. Huntercombe is often the last stop, within the criminal justice system, a foreign national prisoner has before deportation, hence, the anxiety and serious concern about their unclear future is equivalent to being in an immigration removal centre. Thus, the need for visitors and some human and outside contact is very similar, if not greater in the prison setting.

Even if the needs are similar for so-called ‘foreign’ prisoners and other people in immigration detention, our way of working in Huntercombe has both differences and parallels to the work we did in Camspfield. A distinct difference is how we can attract new clients. As the prison system is much stricter, there are no open drop-in sessions like those we used to hold at Campsfield. Instead in Huntercombe, we hold group visits where we meet a group of people and explain the background of our work in the community and in Huntercombe. These group visits are facilitated by prison staff who invite individuals to meet the group in accordance with the language spoken by the volunteers present on the day and the urgency of support they require. During these group visits, we take peoples’ details and ascertain their needs; thereafter we match them with our volunteers to follow up with future one to one visits.

In recent months, since lockdown, when groups visits were suspended, prison staff have helped us to ‘advertise our support’ by spreading our flyers throughout the prison.

Communicating with someone in prison is rather difficult as they do not have easy access to telephones or internet and the number of visits and visiting times are more restricted. We soon discovered that individuals are entitled to only a couple of social (physical) visits a month but, if they don’t have a social visit, they can apply for telephone credit instead to call their family and friends in other parts of the world. Whilst some people were very eager to receive the one to one support of our volunteers, the possibility of not having credit to call their families because they received our volunteer’s social visit was a not a fair choice for them. This was only resolved when we started seeing prisoners during empty legal slots, not to give legal advice, but as a concession for a face to face support without affecting someone’s right to telephone credit.

Last March, as our one to one visits had finally begun flourishing, the threat of the pandemic and consequent lockdown suddenly made it impossible for face to face visits to continue and our services were suspended. News that people in Huntercombe during the pandemic had to cope with a very strict regime atypical for a Category C prison made our volunteers determined to help them at this difficult time. Our perseverance and determination to make the project work coupled with the prison management’s forthcoming and supportive attitude led us to re-start our services in a virtual format. Since last June, we have started video calls with our clients trying to bring some comfort and solidarity to the men who are coping with the new rigid regime. This has not come without tribulations as connections are sometimes poor, though this has improved of late. Volunteers say: “communication is not ideal, it is slow but I think this is better than no contact and the men seem to appreciate it, especially as they are having to spend a lot of time in their cells.”

Another difference between visiting in a prison as opposed to a detention centre is the stringent Ministry of Justice vetting procedure volunteers and staff must go through in order to provide long lasting support to prisoners. The vetting is necessary for continued visits. Although all our volunteers are extremely dedicated and committed to supporting the men, they are foremost volunteers, people willing to give their time and valuable skills, many retired from busy professional lives. Some were surprised, at least in the beginning, with the length of time that it took to gain clearance, the rigor, and strict timeline of the vetting procedure: very different from an immigration removal centre.

For some volunteers, so far, visiting/having contact with this group of men is not very different from an immigration removal centre. “Yes, they had all committed offences but quite a few of those we saw in Campsfield were in a similar position but what was important was that these men were isolated. Some have poor English and so were even more cut off. Although the men are often desperate for immigration legal advice, I think that just having contact with someone from outside who may be able to speak their language is what is important. To be non-judgmental is the first lesson, and patient, and remain hopeful that my very small contribution is of help!”

Overall, for us, who have visited both Campsfield and Huntercombe, the support needs of those we have had contact with are similar and yet the difference lies in what we are able to do. Although we provide primarily emotional support, we also signpost people we work with in prison to different agencies, raise their physical and mental health issues with prison staff and, on occasion, act as a link to immigration advisors (as immigration advice within the prison is rather limited compared to legal representation for criminal cases). But there is a degree of limitation on what is possible to do for them at present.

It has been a learning curve for me and our volunteers in different aspects, for example, prison procedures and rules and thinking through our attitude towards people who are imprisoned. I agree with a volunteer who says ‘there is a lot to learn still’ and “ I am hoping that, as a pilot project, we can still demonstrate that we are improving the lives of those we do speak with and that, with time, our support will expand and will be better tailored to the men’s specific needs.” Undoubtedly, working at Campsfield equipped us with an understanding of the isolation and anxiety experienced by people in detention as well as their limited access to legal redress and other services. We are learning that in a ‘foreign’ national prison, these challenges are even greater. While people must serve their sentence, any support someone facing additional barriers can get whilst doing so can be of help, and may potentially decrease their chances of reoffending and improve the likelihood of their reintegration into society, wherever that may be.

This article was written as part of our Human to Human Winter Appeal which you can donate to here.

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