I have been out of prison for a little over two months, and – perhaps I am slow on the uptake – I am realizing, allowing myself to realize, how prison has changed me. When I first departed from prison to the immigration detention center, a fetid, rotting place ensconced in brick walls and barbed wire, I felt my journey in the prison-industrial complex would never end. Recalling the terror I felt as the guards sadistically joked that the van to the airport wouldn’t arrive, attempting to sleep in the filthy bed, with the sounds of televisions all around, I thought “How could anyone live like this?” After 10 months in prison, this immigration detention facility frightened me, and I had become hardened to such scenes. Bodies, mainly Black and Brown, almost all high on “Spice,” or some other substance smuggled in by the guards, circulated; faces hung on these bodies, sad faces, trapped, caged and brutalized*. History’s weight punched them daily; open wounds, materially and spiritually, the abused haunt vile, hateful corridors.
Recollecting the paint falling off the wall, the general noxious feel of the place, I am reminded of the young Afghani refugee I met, a medical student fleeing war; his uncle had been in Git-mo. He said, very clearly, “This is worse than Afghanistan, one month here and my mind would be permanently damaged.” Designated times for ‘canteen shopping’ and other ‘recreation’ allowing what I now think of as a short walk (then it felt very long), to the upper areas, where we could purchase items at steep marked up prices from Mitie. In the art room, which is part of a room partitioned into and art room and a small shop selling t-shirts, jeans, coats, etc, I find the ‘art teacher;’ she’s an angry white woman, complaining about how immigrants are taking over Britain, how they need to speak English, etc. The usual nonsense spews forth: prison isn’t hard enough, children don’t respect their parents like they did when she was a child, and so on; her list of grievances is endless, but she can go home, these men are stuck here.
Slowly emerging out of the prison-industrial complex, I was stationed in the clean, well-lit room that the UK ‘provides’ for deportees at Heathrow. Friendly staff malevolently make me a microwave meal, vegetarian pasta; have a pear, sit down, relax, wait, get up we’re going now … Off to my Virgin Flight to New York City, the first of three flights I would take within the next 36 hours. London to New York to Berlin to Warsaw. Alexander, my dutiful non-sexual life (and afterlife) partner, has a flat prepared for me on the 13th floor of an apartment block in Wola, a neighborhood bordering central Warsaw, a key place during the Warsaw Uprising. I am near the Warsaw Ghetto, where – only separated by time – people were concentrated against their will. A stark reminder of the dangers of enforced, involuntary concentration; mass incarceration in the United States is racially motivated too, a continuation of slavery and Jim Crow. I think back to that Afghani refugee, how he walked six months through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Austria, Germany and made it somehow to Norway. Denied refugee status there, he flew to the UK, I don’t know how: but he did it. Arrested in the UK, he spent 30 days at some detention facility, then was released and rearrested for immediate deportation: he met me. His only crime? Escaping a war created partly by the UK.
* The UK detains more migrants than any other European country except Greece. The UK is alone in detaining them indefinitely, without time limit, without trial, sometimes for years on end. The UK is the only country in Europe which routinely detains migrants in prisons, a practice considered unlawful in the rest of the EU. The UK is alone in detaining large number of asylum seekers, simply for administrative convenience in processing their cases. Finally, the UK is generating a unique quantity of evidence of the harm done to migrants by detention. (Visit Detention Action for more information)