Gender, Race, and Immigration Detention

Sarah Turnbull

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.

Yarl's Wood IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Yarl’s Wood IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)

On 2 March 2015, an exposé by Channel 4 News of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) was yet another ‘scandal’ facing the UK’s beleaguered detention centre for women. Through the undercover video footage, several Yarl’s Wood staff members can be heard making racist, sexist, and misogynist comments about the women detainees held under their care. Although not unique to immigration detention facilities, such sentiments highlight the complicated interrelationships of gender, race, nationality, and sexuality in the broader context of migration and its control. In this post, I consider the connections between gender, race, and immigration detention and what (if anything) can be gleaned from the feminist scholarship on punishment as a way to think through this particular form of confinement.

For migrants subject to the harsher end of British immigration control, immigration detention is supposed to be the final stop before removal or deportation from UK soil. Those confined in one of the country’s eleven IRCs may be asylum seekers, visa over-stayers, undocumented migrants, individuals with visa problems, or foreign national ex-prisoners. The majority are men, with women making up about 10% of the detained population. Most women are held in Yarl’s Wood, but some are confined in Dungavel IRC and in Colnbrook’s short-stay women’s unit. Although men and women may share many of the same reasons for migration, there exist important gender differences in their means, modes, and experiences, as well as in how ideas about gender, race, and other social factors are constituted in and through immigration policies and practices, producing differential outcomes. Immigration detention is one such site in which gender and race ‘matter.’

Between September 2013 and August 2014, I undertook research at four British IRCs: Yarl’s Wood, Campsfield House, Colnbrook, and Dover. My experiences of researching Yarl’s Wood, a predominately female detention centre, contrasted in many ways to that of the three male centres I visited (Campsfield House, Colnbrook, and Dover), and are revealing both of the gendered and racialised nature of immigration detention, and how this practice itself is constitutive of gender and race relations.

Women's unit of Colnbrook IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Women’s unit of Colnbrook IRC (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)

In all centres, ideas about gender and race shaped how detainees were institutionally governed. In Yarl’s Wood, for example, women are referred to as ‘residents’ rather than detainees, suggesting a ‘softer’ approach to detention compared to that for men. The women residents were further divided by nationality, with particular notions of gender, race, and culture emerging through institutional and staff framings of the Jamaican or Pakistani ‘ladies’ as assertive or passive, respectively. Gender and race intertwined in some staff members’ commentaries about how the women ended up in detention and how they coped with their confinement, drawing on well-worn assessments of women’s greater emotionality, unpredictability, and (risky) sexuality.

Likewise, male detainees were also institutionally governed based on nationality linked to normative conceptions of masculinity, which tended to shape the ways in which staff viewed how men coped with detention and expressed their frustrations. For example, the gym and team sports such as football were viewed as important resources for allowing the men to burn off pent-up masculine energies associated with their confinement. The straightjacketing effects of hegemonic masculinity could be observed through expectations about ‘manning up’ to deal with one’s detention, and some men’s avoidance of arts and crafts as too feminine a way to ‘kill’ time.

As someone who studies the gendered and racialised nature of penality and the punishment of women and men through long-standing penal practices like prison and parole, immigration detention―as a quasi-penal practice―is somewhat confusing. Detention is a form of incarceration, yet it isn’t punishment in the traditional meaning of the word as detainees’ confinement is administrative, rather than a consequence of criminal wrongdoing. Perhaps for this reason, the substantial body of evidence about the importance of gender, among other factors like race and culture, to the ways in which women and men enter into and experience confinement, don’t appear integrated into detention policy or practice. For example, I haven’t seen any indication that detention practices are ‘gender responsive’ nor that there’s ongoing ‘gender sensitivity’ training for staff―even as such approaches are themselves problematic.

Dungavel IRC (Image: Geni)
Dungavel IRC (Image: Geni)

One confusing policy and practice is Dungavel IRC’s allowance for female and male detainees to socialise together in the common areas of the detention centre during periods of open association. Indeed, among a number of the male detainees I spoke with in Campsfield House, Colnbrook, and Dover, Dungavel had a positive reputation for this very reason, reflecting the deprivation of heterosexual intimacies as one of the ‘pains’ of confinement experienced by the men. However, this set-up at Dungavel continues to strike me as problematic on many levels, albeit primarily because it doesn’t reflect the wealth of knowledge about gendered inequalities and practices of confinement. In particular, many women who are detained report having experienced some form of gendered violence, including sexual, domestic, and/or reproductive violence. Detention compounds such experiences, often exacerbating the trauma women have survived. I wonder how the opportunity to associate within this ‘mixed’ setting impacts such women, even with Dungavel’s assurances that it doesn’t accept male detainees with histories of sexual offending.

Feminist scholars of punishment have long shown how ideas about gender, race, class, sexuality, and other markers of ‘difference’ are embedded in our penal systems, shaping how women and men are both ‘known’ and treated. Although detention isn’t punishment, as a form of confinement that draws on logics, rationales, and techniques from the penal system, important questions emerge about the degree to which gender and race ‘matter’ in immigration detention policy and practice. In exploring these questions, we should ask how (and if) we can pay attention to these important issues without further entrenching detention as a dominant response to irregular migration.

Author affiliation: Sarah Turnbull, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford