Power and Purpose in an Immigration Removal Centre

By Dominic Aitken - Posted on 20 March 2024

‘We are just one big family here, whoever we are.’ 

These words – subsequently removed – were displayed on a sign in Brook House immigration removal centre (IRC) when I did my doctoral fieldwork in 2017. Attributed to a former ‘resident’, as the staff insist on calling those who are detained, named Alvin, they were flanked by the logo of G4S, the private security firm who ran the detention centre from its opening in 2009 until 2020. Given that the pain of separation from partners and children is a constant theme in detainees’ testimonies, suggesting that an IRC was a place of unity and kinship was clearly absurd. But platitudes about equality, diversity and inclusion in this context should not be dismissed as a cynical corporate spin and nothing more. They illustrate a broader point about how the power of coercive institutions like IRCs is often at odds with how they represent themselves publicly and a far cry from the purposes that staff say guide them at work. 

In my article ‘Power and Purpose in an Immigration Removal Centre’, now available open access in The British Journal of Criminology, I argue that IRCs like Brook House rest on a foundation of coercive sovereign power, yet portray themselves in innocuous language that could apply to almost any modern organisation. Rather than subjecting the detained men to a top-down regime of firm discipline by quasi-military authority figures, staff spoke to me about ‘looking after’ and ‘helping’ the captive population of Brook House. In interviews, officers said that their role was to combine security with welfare, striking a balance between custody and care. Among senior staff, the identity politics of nationalism that distinguishes citizens from foreigners, ‘us’ and ‘them’, was relegated to the background. In the foreground was a culture of technocratic managerialism, replete with policies, targets, and key performance indicators about ‘the removal process’.  

picture of Brook House exterior

These developments, and ways of talking and working, I argue, are part of a broader ‘civilising process’ that dulls the sharp edge of coercive power and renders it acceptable to modern sensibilities. Faced with intractable conflicts between the exclusionary function of IRCs and the basic interests of detainees, corporate management speak flowed freely: ‘it’s a process that we’ll just have to manage’; ‘we’ll have to wait and see what the decision is’; ‘we want to make sure that we’re hitting our targets’. Detaining people against their will prior to attempts to expel them from the UK, when framed in this way, was not a moral problem of public concern, but a task to be rationally administered with a friendly face.  

The sovereign state’s power to detain then release or expel is the starting point in my paper, and any account of immigration detention that omitted power would surely be incomplete. But inside Brook House it was notable how often coercive power was denied or obscured by euphemisms. Senior staff tried to insist on the use of detention-specific terminology, although in practice officers often resorted to ‘prison language’. ‘Residents’ (not detainees) were ‘locked up’ (not banged up) in their ‘rooms’ (not cells) at night. If they were ‘badly behaved’, perhaps as part of a ‘concerted indiscipline’ (not protest or riot), they might be taken to the ‘care and separation unit’ (not the seg or the block).  

The elusive character of power in Brook House was evident not only in people’s language, but also in the practices of the institution and in the dysfunctions of immigration control more generally. Despite being a removal centre, it was notable how often expulsions failed. Why some people stayed and others went could be difficult to understand. Off-site Home Office decision making was often opaque. Occasionally, flights were booked for individuals and then cancelled. Escort crews sometimes arrived at the gate but refused to transport people to the airport. It was strange, inside immigration detention, to see a coercive system at work with so many weak parts.  

For these and other reasons, I suggest that power in Brook House was at once present, absent, and elsewhere. Present, since many staff recognised that their workplace was effectively an ‘immigration prison’, and were conscious of their authority to use control and restraint techniques to enforce rules if necessary. However, staff also sensed their absence of power every day as they performed small tasks for detainees and responded to their material and emotional needs. What is more, workers were acutely aware of the fact that decision making power about individual immigration cases was located elsewhere, among off-site Home Office caseworkers. The custodial staff had almost no capacity to address detainees’ main concern, namely whether they would ultimately be released back into the UK or expelled overseas. 

One employee conveyed their mixed feelings about working life in an IRC: 

It’s kinda like you’re a parent, really. Not that I’m a parent. A lot of these detainees don’t act their age. Whether it’s a front I dunno. Some of them are very desperate individuals, which is upsetting to see. Especially on the wing, you’re in charge of where they live, their shampoo, their shower, their toothbrush, their toilet roll, their towels … it’s kinda like hospitality, I guess. But you’re kinda looking after their wellbeing. It’s kinda like a guardian position, I guess. I guess we are here to look after their welfare. But on the wings especially, you’re seeing them every day. Some of them you get to know really well.  

Another was scathing about policymakers’ naïveté, and resented having to cater to such a ‘demanding’, ‘dependent’ population:  

I think quite a lot of it’s been dictated by people who don’t work in this sort of environment who don’t know what it’s like to be in this sort of environment. They look at these people as being oppressed and hard done by, and are not aware of their criminal activity or what they are capable of doing. And they look at us as the evil oppressor, when we’re just here trying to look after their welfare and wellbeing.  

I conclude that power and purpose, security and welfare, created a dilemma for staff within Brook House. The institution’s core function is to facilitate removals by containing people securely pending the resolution of their immigration case, and a structural analysis would prioritise power above all else. But my empirical research reveals that the agents who administered the system tended to be far more preoccupied with their weakness than their strength. In their view, they played a tangential or irrelevant role as regards detainees’ biggest concern, their immigration case. In common with immigration control in the liberal state more generally, the reality of Brook House was a strange mixture of closure and openness, partial success and routine failure. 

This post was first published at the Border Criminologies blog and is reproduced on the Strathclyde Law Blog with permission.