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Covid-19 has kept us out of immigration detention centres for more than 18 months - how have we adapted our work?

An update from Hear Me Out's Director John Speyer

November 24, 2021

Hear Me Out has run music-making sessions in immigration detention centres for 15 years – until last year, when the lockdown locked us out of the centres, along with other groups supporting the people held, with no time limit, in these otherwise prison-like institutions. After more than 18 months in which none of us have set foot in a detention centre, a return to face to face music-making now seems on the cards. But what have we been doing in the meantime? How has Hear Me Out adapted to the pandemic?

Covid-19 brought extra ordeals to the experience of detention - with transmission difficult to contain, detainees largely confined to their rooms, and family visits and activities suspended. Many were released early in the lockdown, briefly bringing numbers down to a historic low, but those still detained have had to contend with intensified isolation and the risk of infection, without human contact or positive activities to provide comfort or purpose, and release an even more distant prospect. And a higher proportion of them were in prisons, where it’s been normal to be in your cell for 23 hours a day.

Actually that’s just the start, because since summer 2020 we’ve also seen the government’s draconian response to the arrival of migrants on the south coast in ‘small boats’. Thousands of people “who have fled a variety of conflict zones including Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Eritrea”, and are traumatised by their perilous journeys, have been placed in Short Term Holding Facilities, where the support and activities that fully fledged detention centres are obliged to provide are not required, and in improvised ‘contingency accommodation’ in hotels and disused barracks, where problems include isolation, lack of healthcare and legal advice, and harassment by far-right groups. Napier Barracks in Kent has had Covid outbreaks and a large fire. Inspectors found that people “had little to do to fill their time, a lack of privacy, a lack of control over their day-to-day lives, and limited information about what would happen to them. These factors had had a corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health”. This was not their most alarming finding.

So at Hear Me Out, we’ve done our best to respond to these enormous needs, and this has meant adapting, first to a rare lack of access into detention centres, and then the growing use of these other facilities to hold the people we exist to support. (We also did a load of work supporting disadvantaged groups in the community and engaging them with detainees’ experiences. We’ll tell you about that another time).

Essentially Covid reversed our methods: instead of going to detention centres and making the creative work inside them, we’ve been making the work first and then sending it in. Last summer we commissioned eight artists to create a series of arts activity packs, and delivered thousands of printed packs into all seven of the UK’s detention centres. We wanted to offer people stuck in their rooms, with time hanging heavier than the rest of us could imagine, something that would lift the spirits, occupy the mind and get the creative juices going, using nothing fancier than pen and paper.

Another new project has been a series called ‘DIY Radio’. With help from the Prison Radio Association and a radio producer at BBC, we commissioned five different radio segments, from five artists/ collaborations, including artists with lived experience of detention. The segments are relaxing, informative, hopeful and create a sense of solidarity. Our radio presenter is Russ Haynes, who has previously presented radio for Sunlight Radio and National Prison Radio. We’ve now sent two DIY Radio series in CD form to all the centres, with information on sources of support on the disc, and wonderful artwork on the sleeve, and now also freepost cards for people to send us messages and requests. I think this shows what attention to detail can deliver: an object of beauty, creative stimulus and enjoyment, practical support and a means of communication – and all through a simple CD!

So we’ve found ways of reaching and supporting people even in lockdown conditions. It’s been frustrating not to be able to work with them in person but I’m proud of the quality of this work. And these methods will continue to have value when the pandemic is over (think of that!), as a way of offering something to immigration detainees in places where face-to-face group sessions aren’t easy to provide, for example those spread thinly between dozens of prisons, or held for only hours or days in Short Term Holding Facilities.

But to deliver the best possible work in the range of settings now before us, we need more than remote provision. So a few months ago we started exploring possible methods with a group of our amazing artists, who have such deep experience of music-making in the centres. For each setting, there’s a lot for us to work out. What is this institution like? What are its rules and practices, and what’s it like to be living in it? What are the situations of the people in them, what do they need, and does that include what we can provide? Who can we work with? What kind of activity and artistic method will work best - practically, psychologically, creatively? How can we improve people’s wellbeing, help them cope, offer solidarity? What’s our route to restoring some of that sense of self that detention so undermines?

We’re still working out the answers, and each setting will have its own. In the coming weeks, we hope to start work at Napier Barracks. That will be a start. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Illustration: A dance activity pack created by Jane Munro for people in immigration detention centres, commissioned by Hear Me Out in the summer of 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Illustration by Lucy Algar.

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