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RECOOP invited to work at an Immigration Removal Centre

Friday, December 2nd 2016 - Sandra Seldon - Project Co-ordinator

I had thought that my work at HMP The Verne had come to an end when the prison closed in 2013 and prepared for its new role as an IRC.   The prison used to be a Category C men’s prison, located within the historic Verne Citadel on the Isle of Portland in Dorset.  The prison, having opened in 1949 and built on the highest point of Portland, is surrounded by cliffs and a moat with entrances via a footbridge and one via a tunnel.

The prison was converted into an Immigration Removal Centre and opened in March 2014. The Verne was an open-style prison, though work has taken place in recent years to strengthen the perimeter walls.  Under Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, the status of the prison was changed to hold up to 600 immigration detainees awaiting removal from the country.  This change formed part of a wider plan to modernise the prison estate.

Detainees wait on a daily basis to hear if the Home Office has reached a decision on when and if they will be removed from the country.  Living with such uncertainty causes great distress and older detainees have not always coped well with their predicament.  The Equalities Team contacted me to return to the Verne in its new identity in order to provide both mental and physical activity to their older population.  These activities would need to transcend language barriers – the largest community being Bangladeshi, but detainees speak a very varied range of languages and very few speak English fluently. They also have enormous cultural differences.  

This created quite a challenge for RECOOP -  a steep learning curve indeed!   I have initially launched with a programme of activities that require demonstration and minimal use of language.  We have offered yoga, both chair and two levels of yoga to meet needs, art and sewing workshops.  We have invited a Bangladeshi speaker to help support the work we do by carrying out focus groups to ascertain that any programmes meet the needs of those there.   We are now in our fifth month.

However, most detainees are held for a short time only and this means that programmes are best repeated to ensure all detainees are given an opportunity to benefit.  Attendance is growing and initial scepticism appears to have significantly reduced.  The prison has agreed to provide refreshments and those who speak English have an opportunity to interact and help us and each other.   The feedback we have received has been most encouraging.   We are planning to continue our existing activities but hope also to include cookery, films and well-being sessions in future.  Watch this space!


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