Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Experiences of Immigrant Detainees in Police Custody



Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Roxanna Dehaghani , a third year PhD candidate and Lecturer at Leicester Law School, University of Leicester. Roxanna’s research explores how police custody officers implement the appropriate adult (AA) safeguard for vulnerable adults suspected of committing a criminal offence(s). Through non-participant observation and semi-structured interviewing, Roxanna has explored how police custody officers define and identify vulnerability, and why they implement the AA safeguard. Follow Roxanna on Twitter @roxanna_law.  

Between November 2014 and February 2015, and April 2015 and July 2015, I was based at two police custody suites in England as part of my doctoral research. The research sought to assess how vulnerability (in terms of the appropriate adult safeguard) was identified by custody officers. During my time there, I saw a small but not insignificant number of individuals brought in for immigration-related matters, that were not regarded as ‘proper’ police work. Some of these individuals had lived in England for many years, where they had integrated, developed relationships, and settled into communities; while others had recently arrived to England fleeing conflict or destitution elsewhere in the world. For the latter, England was seemingly a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark world. Although the number of immigrant detainees was comparatively small, their situation struck a chord with me, as the child of an immigrant (from the Global South) and the friend of many immigrants (from North and South). Based on the little information I could gather about their arrest and detention, I realised that immigrant detainees, like other detainees, were far from a homogenous group – some individuals were taking massive risks in moving to England for a better life; others were already settled in England (and some had been for years). For these individuals, being brought into police custody detention signalled, potentially, the end of that dream or the end of that settled life as they knew it.

What particularly hit me was the uncertainty that these individuals faced – their lives were in limbo (much like other crime related detainees and suspects). It was also disturbing to find that these individuals were subject to the same largely invasive 'booking-in' procedures such as, inter alia, the risk assessment; search and removal of various items of clothing; the recording of height measurements, and the taking of fingerprints and photographs for the purposes of identification (see Immigration Act 1971 Schedule 2, paras 16 and 18; Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 s 141 (7); see generally Code D to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). They were, in effect, treated like criminals (actual or alleged). But, unlike those suspected of committing a criminal offence, 'immigrant detainees' were facing potential detention with no definitive release date. These observations stimulated an interest to find out more about the experiences of immigrant detainees in police custody.

Within this post I will explore some of the field notes gathered whilst in police custody. Such interactions led me to question why immigrant detainees were being brought into custody. I, also, thought about how they experienced their time in custody, particularly as these issues have been left unexplored in the literature within the context of police custody.

Individual (female) brought in for potential over-stay. She suffers with depression and anxiety (she is being medicated for this). She seems very distressed and upset – she is unable to speak and is finding it difficult to communicate. She discloses that she has a history of self-harm when asked (she attempted to overdose last year after a disagreement with her partner). When asked whether she would harm herself in custody she replied (whispered), ‘In this situation, I don’t know’. She has bladder problems and a number of dietary requirements. She also has some issues reading and writing. She was asked to read the Notice to Detained Persons in English – she was able to do so but some words were incorrectly pronounced. She seemed very upset and subdued, and asked that her partner be informed of her detention.

(Field notes, June 2015)

This individual had been in the UK for the past 10 years and had a long-term partner. Her detention, posed a number of problems for both herself and the police; she had mental health issues, history of self-harm and attempted suicide, difficulties in reading and writing, bladder problems, and dietary requirements. These issues raise a number of problems for police custody officers. For example, police custody officers owe a duty of care to detainees; they must ensure that the detainee is properly looked-after whilst in custody. The detainee’s mental health issues, and history of self-harm and suicide meant that she potentially posed a risk to herself whilst in custody. Being detained can, understandably, trigger a range of emotions that may heighten the risk of suicide or self-harm or may exacerbate a mental health condition. . Having difficulties in reading and writing may affect a detainee’s understanding of her rights and entitlements andmay also be challenging for the police during the interview. Her bladder problems and dietary requirements could trigger additional considerations for the police. It is likely that this period of detention would exacerbate these issues (and any further detention in a detention centre could worsen this further still).

Although some officers understood the plight of those who were brought in for immigration-related matters, many did not; and whilst this particular individual was treated with respect and humanity, others were not. What I interpreted as the insensitive 'treatment' of immigrant detainees by the police generated my interest in their experiences even further. It also seemed, on occasion, that the police were attempting to ‘game’ the system to ensure that individuals were deported. The following discussion between officers illustrates this:

An investigating/arresting officer was discussing an assault case with someone from the Home Office (who was present in custody in connection with an immigration case). Officer chatted to Immigration Officer in relation to a current detainee (male) who had assaulted two police officers and queried as to whether detainee could be deported (detainee was an EU national).  They were both in agreement that two counts of assaulting a police officer could be sufficiently serious to warrant deportation.

(Field notes, May 2015)

And, on one occasion, I was perturbed by the disregard and insensitivity shown by a (female) police officer. In the following excerpt I detail this uncomfortable interaction:

Individual (male) was brought in for illegal entry to the UK. No issues reported (through Language Line). He reported his age as 15. Officers felt that he looked much older than 15. An age assessment from the Social Services had been requested. He still had a store tag on his t-shirt and the arresting officer was making jokes about him. He had no idea what was happening (as he didn’t speak any English) and looked very bewildered, confused, and frightened. I felt that this insensitivity was particularly inhumane and it made me feel uneasy.

(Field notes, June 2015)

This was not the only time where I felt uneasy or uncomfortable due to things said or done in custody but this interaction made me feel particularly uncomfortable as the individual concerned could not understand what was being said. It is unclear whether such jokes would have been made at his expense had he spoken English. This interaction has remained with me  as I still remember the fear and bewilderment on his face. It was this interaction that reaffirmed my decision to embark upon a study of the experiences of immigrant detainees while in police custody. As police custody is often the first point along a (potentially very lengthy) process, there is value in exploring how immigrant detainees feel at this stage. A study of this nature would complement Dr Alpa Parmar’s study on the policing of immigration in the UK and could add to the existing literature on the experiences of detainees in police custody more generally. Perhaps, most importantly, it would give power to the often forgotten voices, adding to the wonderful work already being conducted by those researching the nascent field of border criminologies and crimmigration.

Much is still to be learnt about the experiences of immigrant detainees at this early stage in the immigration process. Whilst my field notes allude to some of the issues faced, they do little to explain how detainees feel when in police custody. Like the detainees in Choongh’s study, it is possible that they felt isolated, frustrated or frightened. It is also possible that they felt that their detention was a grave injustice. Questions could also be raised regarding whether custody is the most appropriate place to be holding immigration detainees. Their experiences may be very similar to that of crime suspects; alternatively, their experiences may be almost irreconcilable. It is only through conducting qualitative research with this population in custody that such similarities and differences can be explored. Furthermore, the current conceptualisation of vulnerability (in reference to Code C, or increasingly in reference to ‘risk management’ and detainee care) does not give much consideration to the, perhaps added or layered, vulnerability of immigrant detainees in custody. Just as vulnerability is complex, so too is the vulnerability of immigrant detainees. It is hoped that this post will generate some discussion. The field notes have served to prompt my interest in such inquiry, however, much work is still required before I embark on such a project and I would therefore welcome any comments, feedback, and advice.

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