We meet at the tube station and we get on the train to the end of the Picadilly line together. They are blonde, confidently English to the point I’m back to the place where I don’t understand the conversation happening around me. For a split of a second they all look at me and I grab the chance to ask my question:

“Why are we continuously talking about men only, are there not any women in Colnbrook?” ‘No. These two detention centres, in Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, are both just for men. There is another detention centre for women and sometimes their children with them, and that’s why it is sometimes called ‘for families’, but that’s way out of London, outside the London public transport zones system.

We get off the train and out of the station. It is a long walk from the tube station to the detention centres and they tell me the names of the streets, pointing out the landmarks, so next time I can do this on my own.
Then we arrive.
We can see both detention centres from the road, one to the left, the other to the right.

“Yes it is funny. They are named after the boroughs they sit on. So Colnbrook Detention Centre is in Colnbrook Borough, and Harmondsworth Detention Centre is in Harmondsworth Borough. The border between both boroughs is the road between them.”

The detention centres share the entrance from the street and then there are two gates to choose from. Both look like grey concrete complexes where anything could be going on, from a high tech to a chain production factory or even a jail.

We can see no one outside, no security guards, nothing living. All the security personnel must be inside.

And inside they are. First we are given the paperwork we need to fill in, then we are told to come back to the counter with nothing else than the paperwork, already filled in, with our details and the details of the detainee we come to visit. We are given so short time to fill in the papers and put all our possessions in the lockers we have to rush to get in line as told. The guards on both sides of the glass separation at the counter tell us off for taking so long. We need to stand in front of a camera that takes a photograph of our face that then gets printed on to a photocard. We also need to give them a photo ID, some other ID like a bank card and also some official letter we have received, like from a bank or some government department, with our address on it. Then they also take our fingerprints. Then we are given the piece of paper that will be our visit badge and we are allowed to the next step of security. We are scanned like at the airport, and have to go through metal detectors, and after that we are directed to some sterile cubicle that leads to a sterile corridor, and we need to go one by one, separated from each other, until we arrive in the visitors’ waiting room. Once we are seated, some guards are sent off to look for the detainee that we have come to visit.

There are other visits going on in the same room. We can see them through a glass screen that partitions this room into waiting room for us and visit room the inmates and visitors meet.

To that end there are round tables, and chairs around them. They are all very low, like in nurseries, small enough for young children. All the people in the visit room are black, including the guards in uniforms. Some are in groups, some of those groups seem whole families, with children cuddling and jumping on their dad who is in detention, in most cases just awaiting deportation.

While we wait we see a white woman in a suit with a load of papers. And a laptop. So it is possible to be allowed with paperwork. Then I realise she has a different badge. “She is a lawyer”, I get explained.

A door on the far end of the visit room opens and a guard enters, looking at us while letting an inmate follow him.

“That’s our visit”.

We still have to wait for our door to be unlocked to enter the visit room. We choose an empty table and accommodate ourselves on the chairs around it.

Patrick is an old man with a serene look. He says has a lawyer, with whom he has already signed a contract, who is helping him.

While one of our group talks to Patrick, the other one talks to me.

“They are very efficient, the lawyers. As soon a new detainee enters one of these centres, they come to seize the case. As soon as the detainee signs the contract with the lawyer’s firm, that contract is submitted to the authorities, to get the financial help that legally all asylum seekers have to receive from the state. The money goes directly to the lawyers, who, once they have it, disappear. Literally. The detainees have their card, with their telephone number, but the lawyer will never be available. Not on the meagre amount of times they are allowed to use the centre’s phone anyway. That is where we come in.”

We go back to Patrick’s conversation. He is saying that he is not that bothered about his own detention and apparent, imminent deportation because there is another lawyer, though he can’t say where, who is helping him take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

He explains that, back in his Country, in Africa, he was involved in an attempted coup d’etat because he believed the government was and still is corrupt and did not work for the people. But the coup failed and all participants faced death sentences,so those who could flee, fled. He ended up in the UK and he feels confident that he has a good human rights cause.

The other volunteers I came with, more experienced, take some notes, especially when he talks about the conditions inside this detention centre, and the upcoming, planned hunger strike to protest those conditions.

Patrick says that most inmates in this detention centre come from places where torture seems to be routine, and are escaping after being tortured and/or having lost all their families in a violent way. So ending up here after such experiences is not good, and the prospect of being sent back there is making some of the detainees go mad. One sew his own mouth, lip to lip. Lately there have been some suicides.

Some of the inmates seem to be a bit more together and able to organise and they are talking about an organised, all-at-once hunger strike. The volunteers ask him for the names of those organising.