Working with women in detention

Detention Action’s Shashika Heiyantuduwa describes our new work with women in Colnbrook detention centre.

Early this year we held the first workshop at the Rose unit for women in Colnbrook detention centre. We were feeling slightly nervous because it is such a different set up to that which we are used to when working with men in the centre, and working with a new client group – women in detention – we were anticipating many new challenges.

In the Rose unit there is very little privacy.  The only space to conduct the workshop is the laundry/living/sleeping/eating place.  If someone does not want to see us, there is very little apart from close their eyes they can do to get away.

When we arrived Z was the first person to ‘approach’ us.  She welcomed us to sit down and made tea.  She had the most tragic story I had heard that day.  She was detained on her wedding day before she had the chance to tie the knot, despite having asked for permission from UKBA to get married.  The photo on her centre ID card was of her in her wedding dress. Despite being humiliated by the UKBA, in front of their friends and family gathered to witness the ceremony, she was incredibly composed and positive.  She had overstayed her visa.  She accepted her life in UK was not meant to be and had decided with her partner that they would go back to her country and make a home where they were both more welcome.

Rose unit is a short term holding facility for women being detained under immigration powers.  It is located within Colnbrook IRC which is designed and run as a high security holding facility for men.  Before Rose unit existed, women were held in the short term unit for men, where they have severely restricted access to facilities.  The Rose unit is a little better.  It is a self-contained unit with limited facilities.  It holds 8 women at any one time.  Most of the unit is open plan-there are six small beds in a small area. In the middle is a small living space with a couple of book shelves, two computer stations, a TV and some couches.    There are another two small rooms for vulnerable women, they have doors that close and sealed windows that look into the common area.  There are four windows in the room; all sealed that are right opposite the visits hall so the curtains are almost always drawn.  The unit is usually guarded by a female officer who is responsible for maintaining the unit and taking the women out for fresh air breaks twice a day as they cannot go outside when they please.

Women are brought to the unit either because they are about to be removed, to attend an embassy interview or they have recently been detained and are waiting to be transferred to another centre. It is not designed to hold people for more than a few days.   So if they want legal advice, they are not usually able to access it, as there is usually a waiting list.

Men in the centre have access to recreation facilities, legal surgeries and are given information about facilities available at the centre during their induction.  Each unit has designated buddies who new detainees can approach for help and advice about practical issues.   These facilities are not available for women at so it can be a confusing, frightening and isolating experience.

Often the women are newly detained, confused about what their next steps should be and distressed about being locked up. One of simplest but most powerful things that we can do is offer emotional support, advice about their next steps and signposting to other organisations that can help them.

If you are interested in getting involved and are female, please consider volunteering with us.