The British government detains tens of thousands of people every year for immigration purposes, many in former prisons or prison-like centres in places away from public view. But there is a growing solidarity movement determined to expose the injustice of detention and shut all centres down. John Grayson reports from the frontline of a recent protest at Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre, where protestors were surveilled by the police. This article was first published on Shine a Light, an investigate project that publishes first on openDemocracy.
Thanks for coming, get it out there, tell people what’s happening in here!
Message shouted through the wire and steel walls of Morton Hall detention centre
Eleven days into 2017 Lukasz Debowski, a 27-year-old Polish man, was found dead at a Morton Hall, a little-known immigration detention centre in rural Lincolnshire.
Fellow inmates said that Lukasz was “young and quiet, never causing any trouble”, that he had not committed any crime in the UK and that he had sought medical help for mental health problems. They said he’d spent his time watching TV, playing games and at the gym.
They said Lukasz had killed himself, and that he’d been refused bail just before Christmas because he could not provide sureties.
His partner, whose advanced pregnancy left her unable to attend the bail hearing, gave birth to the couple’s son on the day that Lukasz died.
The mood at Morton Hall was low.
Just a few weeks earlier, another Morton Hall detainee had died in hospital. A friend reported to the Detained Voices website that Bai Ahmed Kabia fell down in his cell “foaming at the mouth”, that nurses were called at 3pm, and Kabia was taken to hospital four hours later.
“He was really a nice person and was always willing to help people,” said the friend, a fellow detainee: “He would just help people through the goodness of his heart for nothing in return.”
Bai Ahmed Kabia was reportedly 49 years old and stateless, probably from Sierra Leone. The friend said he had lived in the UK for 27 years. Detainees had heard that when Bai Ahmed Kabia was close to death, the Home Office had signed his release papers.
“If he was given bail and left here. People would have been proud and happy,” said the friend. “But the way he left really weighs heavy on your heart. The media needs to know about this. This place is a stressful place. He’s been punished. We don’t have anyone to stand for us.”
Standing up for immigration detainees
Members of SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) decided to organise a demonstration to highlight the deaths, to show support and solidarity for the 392 men locked up at Morton Hall, and to alert local and national attention to this little-known immigration removal centre in the Lincolnshire countryside. We chose the date, Saturday 11 March.
In early February I took a call from Lincolnshire Police Liaison Officer Jimmy Conway 997, a Group B Community Patrol Constable, who is based in Sleaford. He said that he and another liaison officer in pale blue jackets would be the only police presence (with ‘resources’ nearby but out of sight), and asked us to appoint our own security marshalls “to keep everyone safe”. He seemed relaxed.
But then, things changed.
About 60 people travelled from Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham and Oxford to Morton Hall, near the village of Swinderby, 8 miles south west of Lincoln.
On the morning of the demonstration, just as our coach was leaving Sheffield, PC Conway called me again. He said: “There will be a number of uniformed officers present now John, and a unit who will be filming – you will recognise them by the orange flashes on their jackets.”
Surveillance as deterrence works. Some of my SYMAAG colleagues in Huddersfield and Sheffield had already chosen not to come because they were still in the asylum system. They feared surveillance and its effect on their asylum claims.
PC Conway was true to his word. We were greeted at the gates to Morton Hall by a vanload of uniformed police and a van with members of the filming unit. As you can see from the picture: specialist filming cops were getting close-ups of demonstrators. This is pretty unusual in my experience — I have never seen them openly filming amongst demonstrators at the four Yarl’s Wood detention centre demonstrations I have attended.
They didn’t like our photographer filming them. One officer asked him: “How long have you been here in the UK?”
“Twenty two years,” he replied.
Speaking from inside Morton Hall
We had some phone numbers for men locked up inside Morton Hall who had agreed to let us amplify their voices on our sound system.
They told us management had tried to undermine the demonstration.
“They play music and stop us being outside, they also bring ice cream,” one man told us. “When we heard chants and we managed to get outside. We then heard it was people supporting us people.”
Another said: “We heard the protesting and they try to stop us going outside but we manage to. They tell us it’s about a football team.”
And another: “I shut off the music, they will come and grab me today because I stopped the music.”
About 40 men gathered behind the wire fences. One climbed up the fencing and was able to shout to us. He was Nariman Jalal Karim, an Iranian asylum seeker who said he had been locked up in Morton Hall for six months. He was a physical education teacher who had left his family in the Middle East. For two hours, he chanted “Freedom! Freedom!”
One man, who spoke for eight minutes, told us: “People come in here normal but they get ill. But they don’t care, they don’t care. There are people in here who shouldn’t be here — old people with grandchildren, some have not seen family for years.”
“People need medical attention, for mental health, for diabetes. They need physical and emotional support.
“They lock us up like prison and it’s bad conditions. They don’t want us to show how we are living here. People taking their lives, we have no release date. You’ve no idea what detention does to your mind and body.
“A hundred of us sent a letter to the Home Office because of how long they are keeping us in here, but they never replied. They treat us like rubbish, leaving us to rot in here”
Among us protestors on the outside of the fence was Kingsley, who had been locked up at Morton Hall. Our sound system carried his voice to the protestors on the other side of the fence
“They refused me health care,” Kingsley said. “They treated me like a liar and I had to prove myself. It’s a disgrace. On my first night, I was in lots of pain. They did not believe me. By the third time I asked for help and was refused, I broke everything in the room. They finally called a nurse. They finally called the ambulance.”
About the two recent deaths at Morton Hall, Kingsley said: “One man died because he was not given medical attention. You will be next if you don’t stand up for your freedom against oppression.”
“You have to fight. Never work for £1 an hour. If you refuse to cook and clean, the place will not run. Keep fighting!!”
By phone from inside Morton Hall, one man protested about mobile phones with cameras being confiscated. “They don’t want us to show what it’s like in here,” he said. “But we can’t even have pictures of our families and grandchildren to remember. We’re not prisoners, we’re not criminals, but we would be better off in prison, there we could have our phones.”
Bill McKeith from the Close Campsfield detention centre campaign told the demonstration: “This is an important day to expose what’s going on in Morton Hall. There are ten detention centres in the UK, nine are privately run – this one is run by the Prison Service on behalf of the Home Office. It was a prison for men from 1985 then for women from 2009, and since 2011 the prison changed its name and became an Immigration Removal Centre for 392 men. But it’s still run like a prison – a badly run prison. The contract paid the Prison Service £11m of taxpayers’ money in its first year, and presumably a lot more since then.”
A safe place?
Morton Hall, a former women’s prison, was ‘reroled’ as an immigration removal centre in May 2011. Within months — in September 2011 — eighteen men went on hunger strike to resist their removal to Afghanistan.
In July 2012 two men took to the roof; many detainees were “upset” over the duration of their detention, the BBC reported.
The Prison Officers’ Association told ITV News in November 2012 that 150 detainees had protested and staff had “been forced” to use their batons. The POA blamed rising tensions on the mix of high and low-risk detainees.
On Christmas Day and 30 December 2012, staff and detainees were injured in disturbances involving scores of inmates. The POA told the Guardian that staffing levels were “at the very, very sharp end of what we believe to be safe”. But the UK Border Agency insisted: “Morton Hall is a safe place for detainees and staff.”
In September 2014 Morton Hall again erupted in a protest after a 26 year old Bangladeshi man called Rubel Ahmed was found hanging in his cell.
In March 2015 Morton Hall joined Yarl’s Wood women and people in Harmondsworth in a hunger strike to highlight conditions across detention centres which had been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, and a Channel 4 documentary exposing conditions in Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.
Across detention centres in the UK, figures show that there were 185 recorded incidents of self-harm in 2010. By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 409. In 2015 across the detention estate there were 393 suicide attempts recorded. That’s an average of more than one a day. Morton Hall IRC with 51, was the fourth highest, and had 252 inmates listed as ‘at risk’ of suicide during the year.
A team of prisons inspectors visited Morton Hall last November and reported in March: “Half the detainees in our survey said they had problems with feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival. There had been a three-fold increase in incidents of self-harm since the previous inspection [in March 2013]. During the previous year, four detainees had narrowly escaped fatal or serious injuries as a result of self-harm.”
Protest and be punished
In a statement to the BBC Look North programme, after the Morton Hall demonstration, the Home Office said it respected “everyone’s right to peaceful protest” but detention centres were “essential elements of an effective immigration system”.
Directly after the demonstration Nariman and one of the people who had spoken on the phone to us, Raffael Ebison, were punished and shipped out of Morton Hall. I spoke to both of them whilst writing this article.
Nariman told me: “I am in Brook House now, it looks like another prison. They sent both of us here yesterday (Thursday 16 March)”.
Raffael said: “At the end of the protest on Saturday I was taken straight to the segregation block. We had to stay there till they sent us here to Brook House.”
Campaigners at the demonstration continue to support and contact Nariman and Raffael in Brook House. Plans are already being made for another action at Morton Hall. We are determined to shut down Morton Hall…and all detention centres in the UK.
Author note: Thanks to Lizy for notes, and to Manuch for photographs.
Photos by Manuch