Deciding how to approach the research context of detention is a daunting prospect. As a new doctoral student, in the early stages of designing my project, I already find myself faced with a number of difficult questions. By presenting some of the methodological issues inherent to research on detention, and specific to my project, I aim to reflect on these challenges, and demonstrate the complexities of designing a research model in this relatively new area of scholarly enquiry.
Mirroring the rapid expansion of immigration detention networks across western states, recent years have seen a burgeoning scholarship focused on detention. An important body of knowledge has been gathered on the practice of detention: from macro-structural perspectives on the systems at large to more grounded studies that explore the enactment of policies, practices and subjectivities in context. However, as recent blog posts have highlighted, essential questions remain unanswered as to the purpose of academic research in places of confinement. In this politically charged context that is the site of so much controversy (the latest UK scandal being the sexual abuse allegations at the immigration removal centre (IRC) Yarl’s Wood), and which academics and advocates frequently point out is unnecessary, inhumane and punitive, how can scholarship take on an applied dimension? What, specifically, might academics contribute to the work of civil society organisations supporting detainees or advocating for alternatives to detention? Indeed, what are some of these programmes and are they effective? These questions are central to my doctoral research into the strategies of civil society organisations in UK and US detention centres.
Although minimal empirical research has been conducted on the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) inside detention centres, research elsewhere in prisons and the development sector has pointed towards their dual and contradictory function as agents for political empowerment and as self-interested bodies in their own right. While these organisations provide much needed services such as legal advice, education and training, faith and visitation schemes, some worry about the extensive governmental reliance on, and hegemonic function of, their programmes. So, too, the increased involvement of private sector organisations – at times in partnership with the third sector – in managing prison and detention centres, has been criticised (see here and here).
A number of NGOs support detainees, implementing a variety of projects from educational classes to creative arts workshops. Others run community-based schemes between detention centres and their surrounding localities. Outside detention centres, NGOs administer alternative models to detention or Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) schemes. While some organisations oppose collaborating with the state, others, like Barnardo’s, which has a contract to provide welfare and social care services at Cedars, the pre-departure accommodation centre for families, work directly with the government.
There are understandable reasons for the lack of academic research into detention-focused organisations. Does an NGO want to undergo time-consuming border and immigration authority applications and security clearance for an academic critique of their own practice? Do they have the staff or resources to assist? Such concerns need to be balanced against the potential value of critically informed academic research. It might help them understand and develop their practice. It could be cited when soliciting new community partners and funders. As applied scholarship on immigration enforcement has shown (see here), academics are able to advocate for social justice. Involvement with NGOs certainly requires openness and critical dialogue, as well as constant self-reflection.
We have seen valuable research on the efficacy of projects with asylum seekers outside detention centres but, as has already been discussed in this blog, there is still not enough ethnographic research within detention centres. What are detainees’ views and experiences of detention support practice? Are these schemes worthwhile and attentive to their needs?
IRCs are not contractually obliged to offer much in the way of courses or workshops, and detainees have little daily variation. Furthermore, it is organisations whose work is aligned with the subdued environment institutions wish to foster, and who make careful efforts to maintain good relationships with state authorities and not criticise detention policy, who gain access into IRCs and often win competitive funding bids. What affective meaning do their programmes have for participants then? What are some of the tensions and power relations elicited by their approaches and strategies, and does this devalue their work? And, importantly, should we be advocating for an increase in programmes when it further entrenches the system within a detention industrial complex?
These are some of the questions that I am grappling with as I begin my doctoral research project. Rather than shying away from the civil society-academic gulf, there is a definite need to connect these not so disparate institutions, and consider how ethnographically and theoretically informed research can be used to bring about common ideologies of positive social change.