Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Religious Care Spaces in Immigration Detention


Gregory Lee Cuéllar
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Gregory Lee Cuéllar. Gregory is an Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. As a biblical scholar, Dr. Cuellar is interested in multi-disciplinary ways of reading the biblical text, particularly those rooted in radical and critical thought. He has written on topics related to the U.S. Mexico Borderlands, migration, religion in immigration detention, race, and empire. His two most recent books are, Resacralizing the Other at the US-Mexico Border for Routledge (2020) and Empire, the British Museum, and the Making of the Biblical Scholar in the Nineteenth Century: Archival Criticism (Palgrave, 2019). In terms of advocacy work, he is the co-founder of a refugee artwork project called, Arte de Lágrimas (Art of Tears): Refugee Artwork Project. This project is a traveling art exhibit and archive that aims to create greater public awareness of the lived migratory journeys of asylum-seeking children, youth, and adults. This is the ninth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention' organised by Ana Ballesteros-Pena and Cristina Fernández-Bessa.

At Brook House IRC, which like Harmondsworth is built to Category B (high security) prison design, the religious care spaces for use by detained persons include a chapel, mosque, a multi-faith room, and a chaplaincy drop-in. Based on a 2019 inspection report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons confirmed that 198 detained persons of the total 239-detainee population at Brook House had self-identified with some form of religious tradition. Among the largest religious groups were Muslims, with 99 devotees, and Christians, with 72 devotees. With the facility’s chapel and mosque designed to accommodate no more than 25 people, Muslim Friday prayers and Christian Sunday services were allowed to take place in the Visits Hall to accommodate the large numbers attending. With the understanding that the therapeutic value and sacredness of religious spaces are generally commensurate with their capacity to channel symbolically some form of transcendence by shielding worshipers from the profane, I argue here that this dialectic is hindered significantly in carceral spaces precisely because of their prison-like profaneness. To narrate the religious spaces within immigration detention requires new vocabularies that capture the unsacralizable and obstinate nature of carceral spaces. Here religious spaces need to be approached not as a fluid and amenable interplay between the sacred and the profane but rather as a hostile competition between human ways of coping and carceral imperatives.

a prayer room
2021 photo of Mosque prayer room at Brook House (IRC), Photo: Serco


an exercise yard
Google Earth 2022; the exercise yard at the Brook House Immigration Removal Centre at Gatwick Airport



a diagram of a detention centre
2021 Second Floor Religious Prayer Rooms, Brook House Immigration Removal Centre House Rules, Serco

Despite the apparent practicality of this religious accommodation, it does introduce a complex intersection of place-making in a space originally designed for supervised social visits with the people detained. From a religious perspective, the Muslim Friday prayers and Christian Sunday services in the Visits Hall are sacralizing activities that render this space sacred.

Drawing on place attachment theory, this sacralization of place forges an intense emotional bond to the Visits Hall that is attuned to positive notions of home, family, and cultural identity. On the other hand, the activity that gives the Visits Hall at Brook House the bulk of its meaning is the daily social visits family, friends, and volunteers make with detained people. As such, the Visits Hall functions as an access point to the outside world for detained people, thereby intensifying its capacity to evoke an assemblage of complex emotions. In the 2021 Brook House Inquiry, for instance, Mr. Jamie Macpherson, a regular volunteer visitor of the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group (GDWG), indicated that the Visits Hall is the place where detained people meet with their friends and family when they were about to be removed. He also described his conversation with the detained people he visited as generally falling into two distressful and frustrating themes: their immigration case and lack of healthcare. During social visits in the Visits Hall, the continual surveillance by the security guards and lack of privacy can also turn the room into a suppressive site. As director of the GDWG, Ms. Anna Pincus, testified to the examination lawyer of the Brook House Inquiry, “When our visitors see people in the visits room, there are lots of other detained people with their families, and sometimes there’s a bit of kind of macho bravado. They don’t appear vulnerable in front of other detained persons. So people would definitely put on a bit of a front in the visits hall that would not be evident in the room when we met them one on one.” Indeed, these cumulative experiences in the Visits Hall raise questions about its capacity to function as an effective religious care space. In other words, how does the emotional relationship that the visiting activity creates with the Visits Hall interfere with the positive place attachment that religious services aim to forge in this space?

a visiting room with a blue carpet and chairs and tables
2021 First Floor Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, Visits Room Photo: Serco pg 22


a diagram of a detention centre
2021 First Floor Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, Visits Room Photo: Serco pg 22


In the US, religious spaces in immigration detention are primarily assigned the Christian-based name of “chapel.” Although these spaces are meant to accommodate diverse religious traditions, their setup defaults to a Christian configuration, with rows of chairs facing a pulpit.

a room filled with chairs and a podium
2020 Chapel, The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's processing center in Adelanto, California, Photo: Jay Calderon, USA Today

For instance, the chapel at the Adelanto Immigration Detention Center in California is set for Christian services. This default accommodation forces the detained people of other religions, particularly those requiring prayer rugs, to reorder the space. In facilities like the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, the chapel is combined with nonreligious spaces.

men standing in a chapel
2018 Photo Chapel at Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Center: Reuters

In the Otay Mesa center, at the far end of the chapel lies the center’s law library. Here religious worshipers have in view the very legal materials that reiterate their condition of confinement. Another common feature in these religious spaces are surveillance cameras that convey a carceral form of power.


A chapel
2019, Chapel at Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Center: ICE

Rather than move away from these carceral elements that contribute to detainees’ stress and anxiety, they are brought into these spaces and thereby interfere with the spaces’ therapeutic value. These contrasting architectural elements disrupt the mood and atmosphere of religious spaces and the objects within them . In the end, I argue that this hostile dynamic reflects less the typical friction that arises from the making of sacred space in a secular space than an obstinate carceral environment refusing to be second. In effort to be the one dominate space, the carceral spaces in UK and US immigration detention facilties have to remain impenetrable to other competing narratives. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

G. Cuéllar. (2023) The Religious Care Spaces in Immigration Detention. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/03/religious-care-spaces-immigration-detention. Accessed on: 20/04/2024

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