How Detainees Experience and Cope with Time in Immigration Detention Centers

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Guest post by Liridona Gashi, Willy Pedersen and Thomas Ugelvik, University of Oslo. This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies, Theoretical Criminology and Sage Journals that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here for the next three months.

 

Photo by Thomas Ugelvik

 Zane: I’m spending too much time thinking about my future. What will happen? I don’t know. Anything bad can happen. I don’t know. At night, I cannot sleep. I just lie a few minutes, it’s like someone wakes me up because I have something here [beats on his chest].

Zane (early thirties, from West Africa) was detained at Norway’s only immigration detention center, Trandum, at the time of our interview. The people who are held there have violated the Immigration Act and been placed in detention as an administrative measure to facilitate their deportation. Most detainees are only held at Trandum for a short period (1-3 days on average). In some cases, however, deportation is impeded for various reasons, e.g., if countries refuse to accept the return of their citizens, or when their identities have not been ascertained. In these cases, detention at Trandum may stretch out to weeks and months. Those who end up at Trandum for more than a few days often do not know when they will be deported. Typically, they are not informed that deportation proceedings are in motion until a day or two before they are picked up and put on a plane. As a result, the everyday life at the centre is characterized by uncertainty and tense waiting. Detainees are always on guard, interpreting signals, wondering “When is my turn?” For Zane, this constant uncertainty about his immigration case caused anxiety, sleep-deprivation and negative thoughts about his future. Others described the process of waiting for deportation as “a loss of life itself”. In our study of the Trandum detention center, which is based on two separate periods of fieldwork, including participant observation and qualitative interviews, we found that detainees’ perception and experience of time had a great impact on the institution’s dynamics and daily life. 

People struggled with the uncertainty of the duration of their detention. The open-endedness of this form of confinement, as others have found elsewhere too, shapes the experience of time and temporality in particular ways. The men at Trandum also complained about the limited activities that were available. Apart from mealtimes, short periods of socialization in the yard and regular but limited time spent in the so-called activity center, detained men have few actual activities available to distract themselves from the feeling of empty time and uncertainty. 

Navigating this environment is frustrating. In our fieldwork, we observed how easily such frustrations resulted in discouragement, passivity and occasional aggression. However, we also observed creative ways that many deployed. We observed four temporal strategies. Τhey may seem small and even banal to outsiders. However, they were crucial for those who wanted to alleviate the pains of detainment.

The most common strategy we labelled ‘living in slow motion’. This strategy involves performing even the simplest and most mundane actions very slowly. Detainees talked and walked leisurely. Minor tasks, such as making a cup of tea or tidying up their rooms, were done at an exceptionally slow pace. Often, they would also “stall” and “drag out” small activities. For instance, when the men were asked to pick up something from their rooms, or were waved in for a conversation with staff, they took their time before doing as they were asked. In many cases, this could be seen as a form of coping strategy which makes the everyday temporal challenges easier to handle. In the cases where detainees respond to requests by staff in slow motion, it seems perhaps more reasonably to view this as a form of resistance. Either way, the logic is paradoxical but simple: by stretching out the length of even the smallest actions and activities, some of the empty time can be filled. In this way, it feels like the time passes faster.

Photo by Thomas Ugelvik

 

While some managed their time in Trandum by “stretching out” daily activities, they were often critical of minor disruptions of and deviance from expected routines. For instance, a few minutes of deviation from the everyday institutional schedule could create harsh criticism, confrontations and even outright violence. In contrast to the slow-motion strategy described above, we believe this strategy should be seen more purely as a form of resistance, since it is explicitly directed at detention centre staff. Such a resistance strategy has a temporal advantage in the sense that it may in itself take up some of the empty time with empowering energy and intensity.

A third strategy involves the use of psychoactive substances. In particular, many relied on benzodiazepine-type sleeping pills. Some used them to alleviate anxiety at night, others used them to deliberately regulate time and prolonged waiting. The goal was to fall asleep early in the evening and to get up late in the morning. Aram (late twenties, from Iraq) for example, chuckled when he told us, somewhat self-ironically, that he was "eating pills all night and drinking coffee all day."

The last strategy we observed related to religious practice. As has been found by Kellezi and colleagues in the UK, and by other immigration detention scholars, religion played an important role at Trandum. Many of the men we spoke with either were religious before entering Trandum or became believers during their detention. The weekly Friday prayers were well attended and detainees were frequently observed praying on their own and talking about faith and religion. Not only was the practice of religion a meaningful way of passing time, but faith and the idea of another life assisted people with the consuming unpredictability the institution produces.

These four strategies resemble practices found in other custodial settings. Some, like the slowness and the use of medication, may signal the presence of mental disorders such as depression. It is worth remembering that Mary Bosworth’s review from 2016 on the impact of detention on mental health found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression are common in immigration detention around the world.

At the same time, however, the fact that the strategies we observed appeared to manipulate the perception and experience of time reveals the importance of temporality in these places.  This finding has practical implications. Meaningful everyday activities can have a great impact on detainee’s quality of life and should for that reason be made available. Acknowledging the profound experiences of time in detention can make the institutions a better place both to live and work.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gashi, L., Pedersen, W. and Ugelvik, T. (2022) How Detainees Experience and Cope with Time in Immigration Detention Centers. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/02/how-detainees [date]

Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control
Norway

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