Thinking Outside the Box: Mary

In the second of our ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ series, which looks to capture some of the learning from those with direct experience of working with people in detention, we speak to Mary, a long-time Advocacy Support Volunteer.


I often speak to people who are completely baffled by the lack of a time limit, and I have similar feelings myself. People often come to the UK expecting to find a country that upholds human rights to the highest level. But when you realise that people who have committed no crime can be locked up literally for years, it can leave you feeling cheated.

I didn’t know very much at all about detention before I started. I had visited a centre, and been shocked by the prison-like conditions, where we found a vulnerable torture survivor being detained. I met a man there visiting his son, and heard centre officers mocking him for his appearance and limited English skills. I also had a friend who was taken into detention. But I really had no idea about how baffling and scary the system can be for people.

I was so nervous before my first call. I was just praying the other person wouldn’t pick up. I remember my supervisor listening in on the line to check everything was going OK. After a while he decided it was fine and signed off so I was left on my first ever solo flight. It was a lot like learning to ride a bike really.

Lots of people I have spoken to talk about how difficult it is to get a full night’s sleep in detention.

I think if most people knew how damaging detention is, and how much it costs financially, there would be massive outcry. The Home Office is tied into hugely costly contracts with multinational corporations. Instead of rethinking the system, it tries to cut costs by seeking cheaper contracts, only leading to a race to the bottom in terms of standards inside the detention centres. There are a lot of barriers put in place so people won’t find out about conditions inside the centres.

To be honest, I expected working with people in detention to be a bit of a grind. I was nervous that everyone would be feeling hopeless all the time. But there’s the odd moments of ingenuity and joy that take you by surprise. It’s always great when you ring someone and work out after a while on the phone that they’ve actually been released.

Lots of our clients actually become experts in immigration law until they’re more knowledgeable than a lot of solicitors we speak to. I suppose it’s a way to feel more in control in what could otherwise feel like a completely powerless situation.

I always find myself moved by speaking to people who are the same age as me. I can’t imagine how I’d react to finding myself in detention.